The 2011 Spanish Film Festival & Biutiful

The Spanish Film Festival, which has been running in Australia for 14 years, makes its way across the Tasman this week for its inaugural outing in New Zealand. A total of 13 films are in the lineup: 11 from Spain and one each from Venezuela and Chile. The festival is only in Auckland this year, but other cities will hopefully be included as support grows in the coming years.

The headline film is Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Biutiful, which receives its first New Zealand screenings in the festival after being nominated for two Academy awards (for Best Foreign Film and Best Actor). This is Iñárritu’s first film since 2006’s globe-trotting ensemble drama Babel, and his first Spanish-language picture since his 2002 début Amores Perros.

Set in modern-day Barcelona, Biutiful tells of a father diagnosed with terminal cancer (Javier Bardem) who has to deal with his unpredictable, continually irate bi-ploar wife (from whom he’s trying to separate) as well as his children, whom he doesn’t want to know he’s dying. On top of this, he runs a sweatshop staffed by illegal immigrants. Oh, and he can commune with the afterlife—which means he gets to talk to his dead father, whom he never knew growing up. Seems bleak, right? Well, the thematic dreariness is complemented by equally harsh cinematography—the fluorescent lighting in the counterfeiting factory, for example, is, at times, nearly blinding—and the soundscape, which, backed by Gustavo Santaolalla’s crystalline score, is equally severe. Stretched over two and a half hours, the film is sometimes exhaustive.

But out of misfortune and despair there emerges a sharp, almost peaceful magic realism. The film is, in the end, a beautiful tragedy, reinforced visually by (Iñárritu’s regular collaborator) Rodrigo Prieto’s expert crisp photography and aptly alien colour-grading, and by a spectacular, warmly humane performance from Bardem, one which really should have won him the Oscar over Colin Firth.

Elsewhere in the programme, some light-hearted fare: a colourful piece of feature-length animation called Chico & Rita. The title characters are a talented songwriter and a beautiful, equally talented young singer; their love story is set in the late 1940s and early ’50s against backdrops of Havana, New York City, Las Vegas, and Paris.

Julia’s Eyes (Los Ojos de Julia) is a horror-thriller produced by Guillermo del Toro and written and directed by first-time filmmaker Guillem Morales about a woman who goes blind while investigating the suspicious mystery of her sister’s death.

Hermano—which, in case you’re unfamiliar with Gob Bluth, means “brother”—is a Caracas-set drama that follows two brothers who grow up to become local soccer stars while trying to escape the pressures of their barrio (slum) enclave.

Black Bread (Pa Negre) is an historical fantasy coming-of-age drama set in post-war Catalonia about a boy who witnesses two brutal murders and sets out to uncover the killer. When the authorities suspect his father, the boy escapes into a folkloric imaginary world inspired by local supernatural tales.

In Anything You Want (Todo lo que Tú Quieras) a father, struggling with the sudden loss of his wife, must find the strength (and the resources) to be both mother and father to his young daughter. “A subversive inquiry into gender roles, parenting, and machismo,” reads the festival’s programme note.

Returning home to Santiago after ten years in Berlin, the protagonist of The Life of Fish (La Vida de los Peces) must confront the one-time love of his life, as well as deal with a mysterious tragedy he had kept buried in his past. This was Chile’s entry for the 2011 Foreign Oscar.

The Spanish Film Festival is on at the Rialto cinemas in Newmarket from today (May 18) until the 24th. For the full programme and more information on each film in the lineup, visit the festival’s website, send them some tweets at @spanishfilmfest, and ‘like’ their Facebook page.