Monday, March 20, 2006

¡Viva Cinema!

The ¡Viva! 12th Spanish and Latin American Film Festival brings ten days of cinematic festivities to Cornerhouse. Andy Willis believes there’s much to celebrate.

¡Viva! is now one of the biggest celebrations of Spanish and Latin American cinema in Europe. With the 12th incarnation of this Manchester fixture, 2006’s festivities arrive early, with Princesas on the 9th of March, and events continuing until the 19th of March. During that stretch we can expect an array of dramas, documentaries, shorts, surprise visitors and themed parties, as Latin film festival fever takes over the Cornerhouse on Oxford Street.

The recent widening of the festival to include the cinemas of Latin America might not have pleased some die-hard Spanish cinema fans but it has ensured that ¡Viva! now has many more films to pick from. With such a packed programme, it might be difficult to get your head around everything that’s on offer, so here’s a few suggestions.

The opening film, Princesas, has already been widely praised on the international film festival circuit, and is a suitable starting point. The film focuses on the tough lives of two prostitutes and offers both humour and realistic drama in a moving combination – Pretty Woman it is not. Starring the engaging rising star of Spanish cinema, Candela Peña, Princesas is directed by the reliable Fernando Léon de Aranoa, whose previous outings have included the gritty Barrio (1998) and Los lunes al sol (2002). His work is often compared to that of Ken Loach, although perhaps without the steely political perspective that director brings to his subjects.

The most controversial ¡Viva! offering since Julio Medem’s Basque Ball, Iluminados por el fuego is Argentina’s first fiction feature to tackle the experiences of the Malvinas / Falklands war head-on. A journalist interrupts his work on the legacy of the war to rush to hospital. There he finds a fellow soldier from the conflict dying after attempting suicide. This set-up leads to extended flashbacks that reveal the pair’s experiences on the Islands. Raw and harsh, the film is influenced by a plethora of Hollywood war films but still manages to compile its cinematic clichés in a striking and thought provoking way. Never simplistic, the film offers a refreshingly honest version of the war. The film is adapted from a book by Edgardo Esteban and he will be present at the festival, offering audiences the chance to quiz him about his work.

One of the main strands of the festival this year involves a retrospective of Madrid’s punk tinged Movida scene of the early 1980s. Festival director Linda Pariser says that ‘the inspiration for the retrospective came from a 2005 article celebrating 25 years since the birth of the movement in one of Spain’s leading daily papers El pais’. Although she herself doubts if the origins of the movement can be so easily pinpointed, 1980 would prove to be a key year in Spanish cultural history and the undoubtedly the start of something special. The Movida period is the setting for the new film El Calentito from one of Spain’s leading female directors, Chus Gutierrez. The action takes place around the El Calentito night spot and tells the story of a shy young girl whose life is transformed when she joins an all girl punk band.

Those dosed up on punk thrills will be able to further investigate a number of films produced during that explosion of creative energy. Spanish legend Pedro Almodóvar is the biggest name to emerge from the Movida scene and it is always worth revisiting his groundbreaking early works to see his genius developing. Screenings include the guerrilla-style Pepi, Luci, Bom y otras chicas del montón, Labyrinth of Passion and Dark Habits. Another key film of the period is Arrebato, described by Pariser, as ‘the most famous and phantasmic cult film in Spanish history’. Saturday 11th March sees a Movida themed day of talks that will reflect upon the cultural significance and lasting influence of the period, and a party, where exclusive goodies are promised to those dressed in their best 80’s punk clobber.

An important aspect of the festival is its regular archive spot. This allows audiences the chance to see films they would otherwise be unable to experience. This year it has thrown up two intriguing titles. El húsar de la muerte is the oldest surviving Chilean feature film. It tells the tale of national hero Manuel Rodriguez and this ultra rare screening, accompanied by live music, will be one of the highlights of the week. The archive strand also contributes another film to look out for, Enamorada. Perhaps best known as the actor who played General Mapache in Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, Emilo Fernández was also one of Mexico’s greatest directors. Enamorada is his take on The Taming of the Shrew, transposing the story to revolutionary Mexico.

If engaging with tough social issues gets too much, the festival offers a number of titles offering some light relief. Tapas, an enormous hit in Spain, is a quirky, bittersweet comedy that, as the title suggests, offers snippets from the lives of the inhabitants of a Barcelona working class neighbourhood. It has certainly impressed Linda Pariser who has marked it top of her ‘ones to watch out for in 2006’ list.

Barcelona is also the setting for another film that has garnered rave reviews on the festival circuit, El Taxista ful. This film introduces us to typical Barcelona cabbie, 52-year-old Jose R. Well, maybe he’s not that typical as he steals, or ‘acquires’, all the taxis he drives. It is described by director Jo Sol, somewhat enigmatically, as a meditation on ‘the loneliness caused by the competition between equals’. Feel free to give him your own take on economics and property rights as he will be present for a Q&A at the screening.

Over the years ¡Viva! has included a number of films in the Catalan language, but ones in Basque are much rarer. Aupa Etxebeste! is such a film. A comedy of manners, it centres on a middle class family desperate to keep up appearances. Certainly something of a linguistic novelty, the film can also be seen as a political statement due to the language it was shot in.

More mainstream fare can be found with thrillers such as Hormigas en la boca. Set in Cuba, it follows a criminal trying to catch up with his girlfriend and his loot after serving 10 years in jail. Slick and stylish, the film offers plenty to satisfy those with an appetite for taut action and multiple plot twists.

Football fans might want to check out Real – la pelicula . This film focuses on five Real Madrid fans from around the globe who all share an obsession with what is now officially the wealthiest club in the world, and was, purportedly, General Franco’s favourite football team.

Recent years have seen the number of documentaries shown at the festival increase. Along with that has come a rise in quality. This year’s selections are no exception, with many of the offerings having an overtly political focus. Perhaps the highlight of this strand, if not the festival as a whole, is the revival of Mikhail Kalatozov’s 1964 classic Soy Cuba. A classic propaganda film, it celebrates the Castro-led revolution in such a strikingly cinematic manner it leaves most contemporary documentaries looking like they should only ever be screened on television. If you only catch one documentary this year, this is the one. In fact if you go to just one film at the festival this is the one.

¡Viva! 12th Spanish and Latin American Film Festival is at Cornerhouse, Oxford Street from 9-19 March. For full programme details go to

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