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‘Official Competition’ wrangles with rivalry, self-deception

“Official Competition” (“Competencia oficial”) (2022). Cast: Penélope Cruz, Antonio Banderas, Oscar Martínez, José Luis Gómez, Manolo Solo, Nagore Aramburu, Irene Escolar, Pilar Castro, Koldo Olabarri, Juan Grandinetti. Directors: Mariano Cohn and Gastón Duprat. Screenplay: Mariano Cohn, Andrés Duprat and Gastón Duprat. Web site. Trailer.

To thine own self be true. It’s solid, sage advice we’d all be wise to heed, especially if we lose sight of it and fall prey to the perils of self-deception, something that can get us into trouble with both ourselves and others. Yet it’s astounding how often we ignore this wisdom and stray off into dangerous territory, full of pitfalls with serious consequences. Such is the case with a trio of self-important rivals struggling to work together on the same project, as seen in the wickedly funny new Spanish dark comedy, “Official Competition” (“Competencia oficial”).

Aging pharmaceutical company executive Humberto Suárez (José Luis Gómez) knows that his remaining days are numbered. At age 80, he waxes philosophically about his life, musing particularly about how he wants to be remembered. He’s eager to be thought of as someone who contributed more to life than just becoming a wealthy capitalist. He believes it’s important to leave a meaningful legacy, and so, with his trusty aide, Matías (Manolo Solo), he mulls over some ideas. Perhaps he could do something to benefit the public, like finance the construction of a bridge, one that would ultimately bear his name for his selfless generosity. But then he decides that’s not lofty enough. Instead, he conjectures, maybe he should do something in the arts, like bankroll a film, a project that would undeniably elevate his profile. And so, with that in mind, he sets out to become a movie producer, an undertaking sure to cement his reputation as an esteemed patron of the arts.

After a lengthy and expensive negotiation to acquire the movie rights to a popular and well-respected novel, Humberto and Matías begin assembling a team to make the picture. Heading up the venture is iconic arthouse filmmaker Lola Cuevas (Penélope Cruz), an enigmatic artiste who has developed a reputation as one of the most revered and sought-after, if somewhat inscrutable, directors in the business. When the flamboyant auteur meets with Humberto, she lays out her vision for the project, one that captivates her benefactor the more she tells him about it, especially when he acknowledges that he hasn’t read the book on which the film is based. She then discusses her plans for casting the movie’s two fraternal protagonists, a pairing consisting of actors Félix Rivero (Antonio Banderas) and Iván Torres (Oscar Martínez). This duo has never worked together before, but, as two of the hottest and most distinguished actors in the industry, she’s convinced they’re perfect to play the lead roles.

Sitting under a suspended enormous boulder is one of many “bonding” exercises to which iconic director Lola Cuevas (Penélope Cruz, standing) subjects cast members Félix Rivero (Antonio Banderas, left) and Iván Torres (Oscar Martínez, right) in preparation for filming her new movie, as seen in the new Spanish dark comedy, “Official Competition” (“Competencia oficial”). Photo courtesy of AccuSoft Inc. and IFC Films.

Lola believes Félix and Iván are ideal to play the parts of two rival brothers, in large part because they have different temperaments that suit them perfectly to portray these characters., who are likewise opposite in temperament. However, she doesn’t quite realize how significantly those differences will impinge on their working relationship with one another. Félix is a big, popular movie star, while Iván is a serious actor. Félix relishes attention and unhesitatingly leaps into the limelight, while Iván eschews the rewards of fame and willingly shuns anything that might cheapen the caliber of his work. These polar opposite qualities make for a pairing that is undoubtedly destined to clash – and even more so than the roles themselves call for. And, as rehearsals play out, the conflict between the two actors becomes ever more apparent as they constantly try to one-up one another.

Of course, Lola is not without the means to counteract this rivalry. In fact, some of her methods for shaping the personas of her characters are so bizarre and outrageous that they routinely baffle – if not frustrate and infuriate – her cast members, giving them, in an oddly backhanded way, a point of common interest. This may not be Lola’s primary intent in implementing these practices and exercises, as she believes they’re integral elements of her artistic process. But, if they help to keep Félix and Iván in line and get her the results she wants, she’s not going to protest, either.

And so the process begins – and what an unusual one it is. The film takes viewers through a series of hilarious scenarios where the true natures of these three egocentric personalities come to the fore. Lola presents herself as an allegedly erudite creative who regularly employs cryptic tactics to hone her craft, mold her cast, express herself and pontificate about the essence of art, unaware that much of what she says amounts to vacuous nonsense. Félix comes across as a brazen, self-serving, self-absorbed show-off who likes to believe that he’s capable of doing work better than what he has typically done but who also doesn’t hesitate to set aside that ambition if he can get his needs for fame, money and sex fulfilled more expediently via available shortcuts. And Iván personifies (or so he thinks) the notion that he’s an impeccably serious thespian who doesn’t need all of the trappings of success – and would even go so far as to self-righteously turn down well-earned accolades – if that’s what it takes to preserve such a noble reputation (despite the fact that he secretly craves all of those perks and honors that have repeatedly eluded him). Together they embark on an array of bits that shine a bright light on their true colors, their dysfunctional relationships with one another, and a host of other incidents that skewer the often-self-important character of the arthouse cinema and film festival communities.

Eccentric auteur Lola Cuevas (Penélope Cruz) seeks to ground herself through unusual personal exercises in the new Spanish dark comedy, “Official Competition” (“Competencia oficial”), now playing in theaters. Photo by Manolo Pavon, courtesy of IFC Films.

And what’s Humberto to make of all this? Well, he has the “privilege” of sitting back and watching how his investment plays out. He’s often stunned by what he sees, such as when he arranges for his daughter, Diana (Irene Escolar), to be cast in a supporting role in the picture, an experience that proves to be eye-opening in more ways than one. But, then, that comes with the territory with this picture, one whose dark humor and satirical narrative tickle the funny bone in myriad sidesplitting ways.

Oh, to be a revered film industry artist! It affords so many opportunities for meaningful creative expression – even if one is full of oneself, as is the case with the trio of collaborators on this new movie project. Lola, Félix and Iván genuinely believe in the veracity of whom they think they are and what they embody as unquestionable, bona fide talents, when, in fact, they are better characterized as the epitome of self-importance and pomposity. It’s unfortunate that they cling to such false views of themselves, given that they all probably possess a modicum of innate talent somewhere deep down inside themselves. The question here, though, is how sincerely do they represent what abilities they actually have? Indeed, are they being authentic or merely posing?

Based on what they’re showing here, it’s arguably more of the latter than the former. Nevertheless, they’re able to get away with this so convincingly because they’ve bought into beliefs about themselves so thoroughly that they have enabled themselves to successfully come across the way they do in the eyes of others. This is the result of the conscious creation process at work, the philosophy that maintains we manifest the reality we experience through the power of our thoughts, beliefs and intents. Their “acts” are so well-rehearsed that virtually no one questions them; onlookers perceive them as fully clothed emperors. And, to their benefit, Lola, Félix and Iván get away with it, even with someone as savvy as Humberto.

Filmmaker Lola Cuevas (Penélope Cruz, right) puts actor Félix Rivero (Antonio Banderas, left) through his paces in preparation for filming a new movie, as seen in “Official Competition” (“Competencia oficial”), the new Spanish dark comedy from directors Mariano Cohn and Gastón Duprat. Photo by Manolo Pavon, courtesy of IFC Films.

Audience members of this film, however, are unlikely to see them in the same way as other characters in the picture do. That’s because viewers are armed with the power of discernment, which enables them to cut through the clutter and camouflage to see the posers for who they truly are. While members of the entertainment industry press, fans of the characters’ films and even Señor Suárez are unable to pierce the obvious artifice, those watching from the comfort of their theater seats or home living rooms can tell right away that they’re being bombarded with carefully crafted piles of bull. It’s indeed a shame that the others can’t do the same. They’re apparently willing to accept what’s being fed them without question. Even Humberto, who has a sizeable financial stake involved here, is content to accept what they say and do at face value, without hesitation.

Because of this charade, Lola, Félix and Iván run the risk of being caught at some point. They have been engaged in their behavior for so long that they no longer even recognize it, having become second nature to them. As long as it gets them what they want, that’s all that matters, regardless of the unforeseen consequences, unintended side effects or lack of self-awareness, a practice known as un-conscious creation or creation by default. At times, though, achieving the desired results may be more difficult than expected, at which point they may have to willfully employ these kinds of tactics, even on one another, something they do repeatedly as their story unfolds. That’s verging on potentially disastrous turf. Healthy competition is one thing, but what could potentially happen here is something else entirely.

In the long run, the trio might actually find that they needn’t engage in such calculated bluster or deception. By tapping into their sense of personal integrity and overcoming their penchant for self-deception, they increase the chances of being true to themselves, particularly in the manifestations they seek to create. This would require them to examine their beliefs (especially those related to self-absorption) to set them on a new path, but that’s not impossible, given that such notions can be quite malleable and open to alteration. As creative types, this should come quite readily to them, too, given their inherent ability to envision new possibilities. After all, if they can do that in front of a movie camera, they should be able to do it in everyday life as well.

Actors Iván Torres (Oscar Martínez, left) and Félix Rivero (Antonio Banderas, right) get wrapped up in their work – literally – by filmmaker Lola Cuevas (Penélope Cruz, standing) in preparation for her new movie project in “Official Competition” (“Competencia oficial”). Photo by Manolo Pavon, courtesy of IFC Films.

Of course, bringing this about would also require Lola, Félix and Iván to take responsibility for their intentions and actions. And, given that they’ve long ducked this obligation, doing so could prove challenging. Are they up to the task? That’s hard to say, especially when faced with incidents when it’s called for, as happens at a critical juncture in the film. How will that unfold? You’ll have to watch the movie to find out.

As Lola, Félix and Iván are thrown together for this project, they seek fulfillment in their respective milieus, even if it means stepping on one another’s toes and pulling scams to achieve their desired ends. And, as they go about this, viewers are treated to the principals’ innocuous, pseudo-profound wisdom about creativity, life, humility and hubris. Writer-directors Mariano Cohn and Gastón Duprat, along with screenplay colleague Andrés Duprat, have cooked up a deliciously wicked dark comedy/satire that skewers the movie industry with wry, hilarious wit and inspired sight gags, splendidly played out by Cruz, Banderas and Martínez, all of whom turn in some of their best-ever work here. The masterfully written script delivers the goods with perfect understatement and just enough believable insincerity yet raucously nasty bits to make everything work just about perfectly. There’s a slight tendency for the pacing to drag at the outset, but, in light of everything else it offers, who cares? For those who enjoy their comedy with a sharp edge accompanied by hefty doses of unbridled comeuppance, this theatrical offering is for you.

Most of us would probably agree that there’s nothing wrong with healthy competition. But, when jealousy, rivalry and self-deception become caught up in the mix, we’re asking for trouble, and it’s a development to which we’re often blinded by the foregoing. This may not be much of an issue in seemingly innocent circumstances, but it can easily become devastating when the stakes rise and the competition morphs into something wholly unhealthy. Lola, Félix and Iván unwittingly provide us with a noteworthy cautionary tale on this score, one to which we’d be wise to pay attention.

Copyright © 2022, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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