Spain's annual cinema awards ceremony, the Goyas, took place last night with almost as much interest being focused on relations between some of the main participants as there was shown in the prize giving itself. The Goyas have come quickly following the row over the Ley Sinde, supposedly intended to combat internet piracy. Film director Alex de la Iglesia made it as far as the ceremony as president of the Spanish cinema academy, despite pressures for him to stand down earlier following his resignation announcement in the wake of the PP-PSOE deal that rescued the Ley Sinde in the Senate.
De la Iglesia had been criticised within the industry for having dared to come down from the mountain and treat critics of the new law and internet users in general as if they were human beings instead of monstrous thieves. Last night in his final act as academy president he had to sit next to culture minister Ángeles González Sinde, in whose honour the law has been named. His farewell speech was a cracker, he reminded his audience that internet wasn't the future, it's something that's already here and the cinema industry has to learn to live with it and to learn how to relate to their audience. There were some stony faces in the audience, a noisy protest outside the ceremony by opponents of the Ley Sinde was also largely ignored by the television coverage.
Returning to the awards themselves, the surprise big winner of the night was Pa Negre (Black Bread) which took several of the most important prizes. This outcome has been treated with derision by many, who say that it demonstrates the lamentable state of the Spanish film industry. It probably doesn't help that Pa Negre was shot in Catalan and is set in the period just after the Spanish Civil War. Burn the heretics!
Now I'm part of what seems to be quite an exclusive club, I've actually seen Pa Negre. What's more I liked it very much, even though I don't think it would have been my first choice as Spanish film of the year. Most of the critics of last night's awards almost certainly haven't seen the film although there is at least now a possibility that more people will be able to see it following the prizes it won. The way in which cinema distribution functions means that only one cinema in the whole of Madrid is currently showing the film, probably most of Spain hasn't even had the chance to see it. I don't know whether it can be downloaded!
Those who judge the quality of their movies by the size of the budget, the big names involved or the special effects may as well not bother trying to watch it. Pa Negre isn't really about the Civil War, although the plot at times may lead you to suspect this and the new order created after the war has its effect on the way in which events unfold. It's much more about the dark history of the village where the film is set. Based on a book by Emili Teixidor and written and directed by Agusti Vilaronga, it features a very strong cast and deserved more recognition than it got from the original release.
Apart from seeing Pa Negre, I've also managed to get to see the other three films that competed with it for the best film prize. Of the rivals it was De La Iglesia's own Balada Triste de Trompeta that made the least impact on me. It's better than his (to me) misfiring attempt to move away from his typical style with The Oxford Murders, but it didn't have the spirit of his earlier films even if we did get a dramatic finale on the Cruz de los Caidos that fully matches those epic battles from his other films that took place on the rooftops of Madrid's Gran Via.
Then there was Buried, or "Booryedd" as everyone insisted on calling it last night. A Spanish film because of its director, Rodrigo Cortés, the film takes on the difficult task of portraying the nightmare of a kidnapped American contractor in Iraq who awakes to find himself buried underground in a box with just a lighter and a mobile phone for company. No other actors appear in the film apart from Ryan Reynolds as the lead, the other participants are just voices on the other end of his phone connection. You wonder whether such an idea be sustained for a full length feature but for me this film worked and maintained the tension throughout.
The final big contender was Iciar Bollain's También la Lluvia (Even the Rain). This movie also takes on a notoriously difficult task, that of representing the making of a film within a film. That and attempting to use this as a hook on which to compare the situation facing the indigenous peoples of South America at the time of Columbus with that faced by the modern day inhabitants of Cochabamba in Bolivia. Based on real events surrounding the attempted privatisation of the water supply for that city, the fictional part is provided by the attempts of the foreign film makers to see through their project about Columbus and the divisions between the greedy colonists and the priests who tried to restrain their brutal treatment of the native peoples.
All of this is a bit too much for a two hour film to take on, but if I'd had to choose my Spanish film of the year then this would have been it. Strong performances from the always reliable Luis Tosar and Karra Elejalde who got the role of the actor who gets to play Columbus. In the end last night Tosar lost out to Javier Bardem for the best actor award, although it's not as if he's been badly treated in previous editions of the Goyas. Instead it was Elejalde who won a prize for the film as best supporting male actor. Amidst all the noise about the Ley Sinde and the future of the industry it's actually been quite a good year for Spanish films, and for all the talk about piracy cinema audiences have not been too bad either. In case anyone is wondering, I paid happily to go and see in a cinema all of the four films mentioned in this post.