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The best thrillers of the 2021 Spanish Film Festival

by Bernard O'Shea

I tend to opt for humour over action and violence when it comes to movies, but at times in Australia’s 2021 Spanish Film Festival I’ve found myself gripping the armchairs in the middle of a thriller, relishing the tension and thinking “Wow, what a great film this is!”  Here are my top picks: catch them if you can.

Best war movie: Sordo (The Silent War)

If you saw Pedro Almodóvar’s 2019 film Dolor y gloria/Pain and Glory, starring Antonio Banderas, you will surely remember Asier Etxeandia, the main supporting actor. His character supplied and consumed most of the drugs then came clean to perform the one-man play within the film. Well, if you thought Etxeandia was good in that (he was), let me tell you he’s terrific playing Anselmo Rojas, a rebel soldier on the run in Spain in 1944.

Anselmo (pictured centre at top) is in a Spanish guerrilla group who, encouraged by the liberation of France from Nazi rule in World War II, set out to do some liberating themselves by attacking General Franco’s forces. But their first mission goes horribly and explosively (literally) wrong, Anselmo has to flee into the forest, leaving his best friend Vincente (Hugo Silva) behind, trapped in the rubble. Anselmo isn’t unscathed: he’s lost all his hearing.  The film is based on a graphic novel Sordo (meaning Deaf in English) by David Muñoz and Rayco Pulido, published in 2008.

Anselmo spends weeks on the run, his deafness raising the dramatic tension every time he has an encounter with a human, be they neutral, friend or foe, and with an animal – bloodthirsty wolves roam the forest. Franco’s troops, led by Capitán Bosch (Aitor Luna), set up base in Vincente’s home town. Vincente’s kept prisoner, though, and his wife Rosa (Marian Álvarez) and daughter soon become pawns in the game.

Despite their numerical and aural advantage, though, the Capitán’s men cannot capture Anselmo. Not even when he sneaks into the village to have a bath and slurp some soup. For goodness sake! If you want the job done properly, call in a woman!

Enter ruthless Russian sniper Darya Sergéevich Volkov, played with terrific menace by Romanian actress Olimpia Melinte. She lost an eye in Stalingrad and is as tough as the nails she drives into Vincente’s leg, shrieking “Where is Anselmo Rojas!”The truth is, nobody knows where Anselmo Rojas is. So Darya loads up, gets on her horse and sets out to track him down for once and for all. Now, we sense, Anselmo’s in real trouble. It’s going to be a duel to the death: his or hers.

The film is brilliantly made, the scenery’s terrific (the mountains, forests, lush river valleys of northern Spain). Some reviewers says it’s too long and too far-fetched, but I loved every implausible action-packed moment.

Best whodunnit: El Asesino De Los Caprichos (The Goya Murders)

In the wealthy suburbs of Madrid, the art of murder is being taken to a shocking new level. A serial killer is on the prowl, targeting rich art collectors, specifically those who own one of the 80 prints in Francisco Goya’s Los Caprichos series. But these aren’t ordinary murders – they’re extremely artistic ones. The murderer painstakingly recreates the scene in each victim’s Capricho, putting their dead body into the picture.  Thus the film is a bit like going to the cinema and the Museo Nacional del Prado at the same time. A great bonus is that the wonderful Maribel Verdú of Y Tu Mamá También and Pan’s Labryinth fame plays Carmen, the detective who leads the investigation into the bizarre murders.

It’s a female buddy-buddy movie of sorts, except that Carmen can’t stand her new colleague Eva (Aura Garrido). Carmen’s a hard-drinking loner who can’t form meaningful relationships and is married to her job; Eva’s married with kids and would like to spend some time with her family, thanks very much. But they have to put their differences aside if they are to get anywhere with the case.

Once the Goya Los Caprichos pattern is established, the pair have to track down other art collectors in Madrid who could be next on the list. (Is the killer someone who’s extracting revenge after being outbid at auctions?) But art collectors are intensely private, it seems. Often their purchases are anonymous – they don’t like paying taxes! The hoity-toity arts world can be devious.

Carmen can be reckless and gets too obsessed with the case. She patrols alone when officially off-duty, putting herself in danger. It’s a complicated case, and one that’s a bit baffling for the viewer – you will want to see it again to pick up the clues you missed. But the climax is thrilling and totally unexpected.

Best Spanish western: Intemperie (Out In The Open)

More down to earth but just as enthralling as Sordo, Intemperie is a gritty Spanish western set in the heat and dust of Andalucía in 1946. It also involves a manhunt, or rather a boyhunt: the fugitive is dirt-poor 12-year-old Niño (Jaime López), who has fled from brutal plantation owner and overlord Capataz (Luis Callejo), stealing his gold watch in the process. Why Niño had to escape and why Capataz desperately wants him back is never explicitly stated, but the insinuations are sinister.

Niño needs all his wits and his water bottle to have any chance of making it to “the city”, but he soon loses the later and seems doomed to die of thirst in the open. Luckily, ‘Pastor’  (Luis Tosar), a passing shepherd with a meagre flock, finds him in the nick of time. Initially suspicious of each other, the two strike up a bond, Pastor taking on the role of bodyguard or paternal protector. However, as the bounty hunters converge on the duo and the chase gets more intense, Niño will be called upon to do some protecting of his own.

The film is adapted from Jesús Carrasco’s best-selling novel Out in the Open. It sounds terrific, judging by this excerpt from Cine Europa’s review of the film:

Those who have read the novel … swear that the film version, helmed by Benito Zambrano … is milder than the original book. It’s hard to believe, though, because Out in the Open, the film, is almost excessively brutal, with physical and psychological violence galloping at full pelt through a parched, hostile and sweltering landscape in mid-1900s Spain.

The film is riveting, and I can’t wait to read the book. M5R

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