MEXICO CITY – What is art? Do awards make you a better artist? Are blockbuster movies only for pseudo-actors? These are some questions unleashed in “Official Competition,” a comedy starring Penélope Cruz, Antonio Banderas and Oscar Martínez in a battle of egos.
Throughout the film, directed by Argentinians Mariano Cohn and Gastón Duprat, the deadly sin of vanity is experienced with great intensity. It is felt from the beginning, when an old businessman (José Luis Gómez) seeks to leave his mark on history by financing a film about two brothers fighting to the death directed by a renowned filmmaker — even though he never read the novel in which it is based.
The director is Lola Cuevas (Cruz), a relentless woman with no filter, passionate about film down to the smallest detail, but with a rather unconventional approach.
“She believes that her actors must suffer to get a better result,” Cruz said in a recent interview from New York, where the film was shown at the Tribeca Festival ahead of its theatrical release on Friday in the US.
“She’s a very peculiar character, very quirky, but that’s why she’s so fascinating. When I read it (I said) ‘how wonderful, how lucky to be able to play a person like that, a being with no filters who says everything she feels and thinks and doesn’t care what people think of her’”, the Academy Award-winning actress added.
One of Lola’s first jaw-dropping comments on the film is that “an artist without children has a great advantage, he can create freely, without fear. When there are children, there is panic.”
Cruz, who is a mother of two, disagrees with her character’s statement.
“You can take (motherhood) into your work, for sure it’s a big injection to creativity. Even if you are much more tired all the time, it doesn’t matter, it’s worth it,” said the actor, who recently was recognized with Spain’s 2022 National Film Award for her contributions to the art.
In “Official Competition”, Lola summons two equally recognized but diametrically opposed actors: Iván Torres (Martínez), a very experienced Argentine who has his own school, does theater and hates the deceptive glitter of fame; and Félix Rivero (Banderas), a star of international stature with many awards and blockbuster films, but who tends to be late for rehearsals. The tension is present from the first script reading and increases but, secretly, little by little, Iván and Félix begin to do things that they learn from the other, while trying to demonstrate their superiority.
“They are dangerous animals. They can destroy themselves in order to obtain the predominant position in that production,” said Banderas in a video call from New York.
For the Spanish actor, one of the points of the film is that “you can see how easy it is for people to become what they criticize.” He has avoided falling into the mistakes that Félix makes, despite having a world-renowned career, precisely as a result of meeting actors like his character in real life.
“My career was built little by little,” said Banderas. “I basically started in theater, which is very helpful, because theater confronts you with yourself very strongly every day, you have an audience that responds, or not, to whatever you’re doing, and you start analyzing yourself in a completely different way that cinema actors do. ... I think it's sometimes very dangerous when you have a very successful career very early.”
In “Official Competition”, Lola acts as a referee, but also as a sparring partner, inciting confrontation between the two actors — if the tension is real, her film will be better, she thinks. One of the tests she puts them through to combat their egos is the destruction of their awards, including her own Palm d’Or and Silver Lion.
“You can take that very seriously, you can just think that is a very real exercise to any human being just to break that kind of attachment that we have to objects, and those objects that they represent things that we obtain in life,” said Banderas.
That was one of Cruz’s favorite scenes, along with another in which the director is alone on the floor talking to herself through a plastic tube, insulting herself.
“I think it’s a very funny and pathetic moment, where you also see the lost girl she has inside,” said Cruz, whose character sports big red, curly hair.
“It was a big statement,” she said of of Lola's appearance. “She’s not trying to hide herself, she wants people to see her, to look at her. She thinks she always has the most interesting things to say in the room. She is such an egomaniac.”
Coupled with the great personalities of the three main characters, the film, shot in San Lorenzo de El Escorial, Spain, takes place in a cultural complex whose gloomy and modern architecture contrasts with the absurdity of the scenes, but also makes it feel like a conceptual art performance.
“Being in those spaces brings up so many questions about art — What is wrong? What is right?,” said Cruz. “Being in that space is like all that information was floating everywhere in the room”.
The shooting began in early 2020 and was cut short in March by the coronavirus pandemic. They were able to resume it in September of that year.
“The nice thing about this is that I see the movie now and I don’t remember what was shot in March and what was shot in September. I think we recovered the tone that we had when we left the movie ... and luckily we didn’t lose inspiration,” said Banderas.
Playing a director has only fueled a spark that Cruz has since she was 16. The actor directed a documentary, 2016's “Yo Soy Uno Entre Cien Mil,” as well as two short films for Agent Provocateur, a lingerie brand.
“It is something that I want to do for sure in my life,” Cruz said. “I am preparing a documentary now that is gonna take me a few years, because it’s complicated and requires different treatments, different locations. It’s not an easy subject to approach. I need time to do it right,” she added, without revealing any details.
Although they have known each other for about 30 years and consider themselves friends, “Official Competition” is the first film in which Cruz and Banderas have numerous scenes and dialogues together. Before, they had shared small scenes in Pedro Almodóvar's “Pain and Glory” and “I’m So Excited!”
“It was a pleasure and especially in a comedy world, although deep down it is a very thoughtful and complex film,” Banderas said. “Seeing her create a character ... that has nothing to do with her, that is so different from who she is, it was very beautiful.”