Piggy screening at Spanish Cinema Now
Piggy screens at Spanish Cinema Now, at AFI from June 3 through 15; courtesy of AFI Silver

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The films in Spanish Cinema Now, a collaboration between AFI Silver and the Cultural Office of the Embassy of Spain, all have an edge to them. The characters are recognizably adult, capable of sophisticated thinking and complex morality. They have little inclination to say what they think, so the filmmakers tease out their viewpoints with situations that also serve as commentary on life in modern Spain, whether it’s in cosmopolitan cities or sleepy villages.

This year’s festival, which starts on June 3 and runs through the 15, features thrillers, comedies, dramas, and horror. It is an opportunity to see some of Spain’s biggest stars, including Javier Bardem and Penélope Cruz, some of whom are in top form. AFI regularly collaborates with embassies from all around the world to bring international cinema to the D.C. film fans, but this year’s Spanish festival might be their most consistently excellent collaboration yet. It is certainly the most provocative.

Here is our guide to what Spanish Cinema Now has to offer:

The Good Boss

Bardem is naturally charismatic, and over the course of The Good Boss, he impressively curdles all that charm. This 2021 film was a hit in Spain—it set box office records, and won several Goya Awards last year—although American audiences may lack the context to appreciate all its satirical bite.

Bardem plays Blanco, the owner of a factory that manufactures industrial scales, and he is in good spirits at the start of his workweek. His employees respect him (for now), and his company is up for a prestigious award from the regional government. Trouble starts, however, in one unexpected way after another. His most trusted advisor has marital problems, and after a round of layoffs, a disgruntled employee shouts anti-capitalist slogans from his camp across from the factory entrance. But Blanco’s biggest problem relates to his not-so-discreet desire for younger women colleagues, and a new college intern catches his eye.

Blanco is a recognizable character, a mediocre, middle-aged man who harbors the delusion he earned his success (he inherited the company, of course). Writer/director Fernando Léon de Aranoa shrewdly turns the screws on him, until he has no choice but to abandon the pretense that his colleagues are all a “work family.” 

The Good Boss is a touch too soft on its deserving targets, so it can be frustrating when it pulls its punches. Still, in its inevitable final minutes, it is a damning reminder that management failing upward is the only true certainty in late-stage capitalism.

Javier Bardem in The Good Boss

The Good Boss plays June 4 at 8 p.m. and June 9 at 7:20 p.m.

Piggy

Piggy is an intense portrayal of adolescent cruelty that slowly morphs into a bloody thriller. Writer/director Carlota Pereda offers few sympathetic characters, except for the tortured protagonist whose isolation is instantly relatable.

Laura Galán plays Sara, an overweight butcher’s daughter in a small town full of gossips and her classmates are relentless bullies. When she visits the community pool on a hot summer day, Sara is the victim of a humiliating prank, but something strange happens on her trip home: She realizes her bullies were kidnapped, and the kidnapper shows her an act of kindness before he speeds away in his van.

Most of Piggy follows Sara’s agonizing moral dilemma. Should she tell the authorities about the kidnapper? Pereda shrewdly puts us into Sara’s mindset, so we understood her terror and reluctance (her nagging mother, played by Carmen Machi unintentionally reinforces her silence). Overwhelmed and despondent, Sara’s self-confidence is so low that she thinks this kidnapper could be her friend. At first, the film seems like a riff on Fat Girl or maybe Welcome to the Dollhouse, but its final act is a suspenseful, nasty showdown between Sara and the killer that should please hardened genre fans.

If the audience for Piggy is limited, at least those who can stomach its brutality will relate to someone whose unhappiness makes her an easy mark for pure evil.

Piggy screens June 4 at 10:30 p.m. and June 9, at 9:45 p.m.

My Emptiness and I

There have been many recent American films and TV shows that depict the lives of trans characters, but many of them opt to avoid sexual frankness. The character piece My Emptiness and I is not explicit, although the characters are willing to discuss their bodies and desires in a way American viewers are largely unaccustomed to seeing.

The point of entry is Raphi (Raphaëlle Pérez, who cowrote the film), a French trans woman living in Barcelona. Her friends and family are encouraging, but she continues to pursue men who harangue her; some are curious, friendly, but only to a point, others treat her with outright hostility. They almost all disappoint her.

Pérez and director Adrián Silvestre adapted the material from a stage show, and while the film is mostly a series of vignettes, the three-dimensional lead character keeps it compelling. There are many sex scenes in My Emptiness and I, which sometimes turn violent; sometimes Raphi is emotionally overwhelmed, but still, she keeps looking. Another shrewd flourish is to display the texts and dating app messages she receives, a window into her desires that she guards until, finally, she develops a stronger sense of who she is.

Pérez’s performance ensures Raphi is not merely a victim, but a complicated woman that cannot find what she wants because she constantly compares herself to others. By the time she feels some peace, through a mix of self-acceptance and artistic expression, there is a sense that the specificity of her experience might serve as an inspiration to others.

My Emptiness and I

My Emptiness and I screens June 5 at 3:20 p.m. and June 6 at 9:15 p.m.

The Replacement

The period film The Replacement may not have much of an audience beyond Spain because it depicts a specific political moment in the country’s history. That is a shame since there is a sense of moral outrage that recalls paranoid thrillers from the 1970s.

It follows Andrés (Ricardo Gómez), a successful detective who accepts a new post at a seaside village. At first, he gets the impression there are few crimes to solve, but then he looks into the control that German expats have over the community. The film is set in the early 1980s, a period where World War II is a forgotten memory, but it does not take long for Andrés to realize his town is a refuge for Nazi officers who escaped prosecution.

Director Óscar Aibar uses Andrés’ understated shock to develop a strong sense of morality. The most terrifying scenes in the film are when Spanish and Germans alike partake in Nazi salutes, out in the open, as if they expect tolerance. The middle section, in which Andrés discovers a modern ethnic cleansing plot perpetrated by these Nazis, has the thrill of discovery that can be found in the best procedurals. The trouble is how Aibar pads The Replacement with unnecessary flourishes, like a romantic subplot and unconvincing chase sequences. Gómez and the other actors do their best to elevate the material, although the cumulative suggestion is that Aibar does not trust his film—which is based on a true story—is compelling enough on its own.

Bells and whistles are not necessary for this material. It is shocking enough as it is, and has added resonance now that white supremacists are again creeping out of the shadows.

The Replacement

The Replacement screens June 5 at 7:20 p.m, and June 7 at 7:20 p.m.

Official Competition

It might seem obvious where the showbiz satire Official Competition is going. The characters are broad archetypes that should be instantly obvious to, well, the sort of crowd who might spend a June evening at an international film festival. But the three main characters are more realized than they need to be, so the film rises above the targets it relentlessly skewers.

Penélope Cruz plays Lola, a respected film director whose past work won prestigious awards, including the Palme d’Or. Her latest film might be her most ambitious: a literary adaptation that stars Félix (Antonio Banderas) and Iván (Oscar Martínez), Spain’s most respected actors. The two, however, have never worked together because they have different sensibilities: Félix is an international star, while Iván is an intellectual “actor’s actor.” Most of the film follows their rehearsals, which become a series of ego-driven pranks. No one wants to back down.

Lola, Félix, and Iván are deeply vain, looking for any way to assert their particular path is the best. Directors Gastón Duprat and Mariano Cohn are not content with merely knocking them down a peg: the three leads are ruthlessly intelligent, capable of surprising one another because everyone always assumes the worst about them. In particular, this is Cruz’s finest performance in years. She projects credibility and vulnerability in equal measure, leading to a lengthy, heartbreaking close-up that conveys too many contrasting emotions to count.

The audience to Official Competition could be limited to those who follow the international film festival circuit, but it understands its audience will not tolerate pulled punches. When this film hits, it hits hard.

Antonio Banderas and Penélope Cruz in Official Competition

Official Competition is the festival’s closing night film and screens June 15 at 7 p.m. Spanish Cinema Now runs June 3 through 15. silver.afi.com. Tickets for individual films are $13.