No part of the moviemaking business is spared in Competencia Oficial, a smart and biting story about a millionaire who decides to consecrate his legacy by financing a film. Directed by Argentine duo Gastón Duprat and Mariano Cohn and premiering in the Venice competition, the feature impressively dissects the relationships between a movie’s directors, actors and audience without compromising its comedic edge. Competencia Oficial won’t tickle everyone — possible complaints might harp on its pretentiousness or call out its few instances of predictable plotting — but for viewers willing to go with the flow, the film serves up roughly two hours of sharp reflections deliciously wrapped in entertaining antics.
For Duprat and Cohn, pondering and poking fun at the artistic process is familiar terrain. Their previous films — The Man Next Door and The Distinguished Citizen — raised questions about the tensions between high and popular culture, the costs of success and the broad ethical quandaries those of us delusional enough to commit to a creative life face. They deal with those themes in Competencia Oficial, but this film’s particular focus, and one that makes it especially absorbing, is the lengths to which actors go to deliver emotional and moving performances.
The film opens with a sad rich man unnerved by the reality of aging. On his birthday, pharmaceutical millionaire Humberto Suárez (José Luis Gómez) finds himself unduly preoccupied by thoughts of his legacy. In his stately office, surrounded by a trove of gifts, cards wishing him well and partially deflated balloons, he wonders what people will say about him after he dies. Will they remember that he came from nothing, or will his vast fortune, accumulated over his lifetime, cloud that narrative? Before his assistant, Matías (Manolo Solo), can answer, our bespectacled baron, hair graying, soul probably decaying, sifts through his options. Perhaps, he should launch a foundation? No. Build a bridge and donate it to the city! Maybe, but … also no. What about a movie? Now, there’s an idea.
What this film will be about doesn’t concern or, quite frankly, interest Humberto. He’s more excited about the optics, and what financing the project will communicate to others about him and his interests. He tasks Matías with ironing out the details, an assignment that includes the tedious and expensive process of acquiring the rights to a book Humberto has never read and hiring Lola Cuevas (Penélope Cruz), a critically acclaimed director known for her eccentric tendencies.
During their first meeting, Lola dramatically recounts the plot of the book — two brothers engaged in an intense and lifelong rivalry — and her plans to very loosely adapt it. To help complete her vision, she wants to hire two legendary actors: Félix Rivero (Antonio Banderas), a heartthrob and one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, and Iván Torres (Oscar Martínez), a giant in the world of radical theater. The two neither like nor respect each other, and that natural tension, Lola says, will surely make their film a success.
The real fun begins with their nine days of rehearsal, during which Lola subjects the two men to a series of increasingly outrageous exercises. The screenplay, by Andrés Duprat (the director’s brother) and the two helmers, smartly balances the entertaining, cutting jokes (which, thanks to the strong work of the three leads, always land) with more philosophical monologues gesturing at the film’s thematic concerns. Keen viewers will approach every scene with skepticism and notice the recurring warning against becoming trapped by the constraints of your ideologies. I do wish more had been done to stretch some characters, especially Lola, beyond their archetypal roles and their parroting of particular beliefs.
Lola’s exercises — well-conceived and increasingly outrageous — emerge as the heart of Competencia Oficial. She forces the men, committed to their divergent ideologies, to see themselves in one another and to express the full range of their emotions. She coaxes Iván to loosen up and cry, instills genuine fear by asking them both to do a reading under a boulder attached to a crane, and destroys their prized possessions, in a perhaps misguided attempt to vanquish the ego. While her methods are questionable, there is no doubt that they work. It’s a shame, then, that she isn’t afforded the same respect from the two actors, whose few moments of bonding revolve around undermining her. But perhaps that’s a commentary on the entertainment world’s lack of real gender parity.
Cruz is a gift, her face communicating Lola’s every unspoken emotion. We don’t need much dialogue to understand that, despite her tough exterior, Lola is exceptionally sensitive and cares deeply about her process and the two men. I’d be remiss not to mention the work of costume designer Wanda Morales, who captures Lola’s personality with an enviable wardrobe filled with dramatically embellished blouses, textured pants and chunky boots. Production designer Alain Bainée and cinematographer Arnau Valls Colomer deserve kudos as well, their contributions essential to building and capturing the stylish world these characters inhabit.
Parts of the film, especially near the end, might feel too predictable for some viewers. Even so, these narrative choices don’t detract from the overall experience. Despite its commitment to biting humor and acerbic analysis, Competencia Oficial is, at its heart, a celebration of artists and their process.