The world of film and its makers is a mysterious and strange one, filled with equal parts glamor and hard labor. In fact, I’d go so far as to say the glamourous aspect of the job is mostly the side the public is still familiar with, whereas the hard and laborious side is more mysterious and more for people “in the know,” people inside the industry, or people curious enough to look for it in research. If the curtain of glamor was unveiled, I think people would be genuinely surprised at the number of ego-driven maniacs and crybabies who populate artistic circles and industries. And it’s the glamorous curtain that writing and directing duo Gastón Duprat and Mariano Cohn wish to unveil in their biting satire Official Competition (Spanish: Competencia oficial).
Official Competition opens with successful millionaire and entrepreneur Humberto Suárez (José Luis Gómez), who wishes to leave a lasting legacy behind him, something people will genuinely remember him by. A bridge carrying his name? No, too ordinary. Financing a film however? There might be something to it. And financing a film is exactly what Suárez intends to do. He options the rights to a Nobel Prize winning novel (even if he didn’t bother to read it) and enlists celebrated if eccentric filmmaker Lola Cuevas (Penélope Cruz) to helm it. Lola’s vision of the film, about a lasting conflict between two brothers, sees the pairing between two of Spain’s powerhouse actors: the global superstar Félix Rivero (Antonio Banderas) and the serious dramatic actor Iván Torres (Oscar Martínez). For roughly two weeks, the three of them will rehearse together with clashing work methods and indeed views on art and cinema taking place, becoming effectively a competition between Felix and Iván to see which one of them truly is the superior actor of the two.
What I liked about the film the most was the minimalist approach to the project taken by Duprat and Cohn. The majority of the film concerns itself merely with the interaction between the three principal characters of Lola, Félix and Iván as they go through various acting and directorial exercises ahead of shooting. And it should be no surprise to anyone that both Cruz and Banderas are absolutely on fire in their respective parts. They’re tremendous performers who are being asked to play roles they can both excel at, Cruz as the eccentric filmmaker and Banderas as the obnoxious movie star. In some ways Banderas doesn’t have to stretch himself too much as he essentially is what his character represents, although I’m sure Banderas is more self aware than his film counterpart is. And the casting of Martínez as Iván works very well contrasted to Banderas and Cruz. As someone who isn’t too familiar to many audience members outside of the Spanish-language world he lends a sense of authenticity in his role as a serious and renowned dramatic actor who takes art very seriously ahead of his own desires for fame whilst failing to see the ignorance of his ways as he’s just as selfish and self-serving as Félix.
Adding to this minimalist approach is the use of locations within the film, with the presence of big, open, modernist architecture virtually swallowing up the characters whole. It reminded me very much of the work of Michelangelo Antonioni mixed with an almost Kubrickian sense of objectivity, further intensifying the constant tension between the three main characters, as well as the absurdity and childishness of their actions. They like to think of themselves as civilized and cultured, but deep down, they’re all just very annoying and selfish people. In some ways, this is the best Ruben Östlund movie that Ruben Östlund has yet to make.
If you’re in the mood for a clever satirical comedy about screen divas and demonic directors, portrayed by top notch actors, and all set within slick buildings with high ceilings, then Official Competition is the movie for you.