• The San Juan Daily Star

‘Official Competition’ review: Madness in their methods

Antonio Banderas as a preening actor and Penélope Cruz as a mad-genius (or just mad?) director in “Official Competition.”

By A.O. Scott

For more than 20 years, I’ve spent at least part of every week thinking about actors, but exactly what they do remains mysterious to me. Is a great performance the result of technique, of natural charisma, or of some unrepeatable chemical reaction between talent and material? Is acting a sublime feat of self-transformation, or just a fancy kind of lying?

These questions pop up in “Official Competition,” a playful movie by the Argentine duo Gastón Duprat and Mariano Cohn about moviemaking in which three mighty Spanish-speaking actors conduct a master class in the theory and practice of their craft.

The premise is that a rich industrialist (José Luis Gomez), feeling blue on his 80th birthday, decides to finance a film as a way of extending his legacy. He buys the rights to a prizewinning novel — he never bothers to read it — and hires a prizewinning director, Lola, who casts two belaureled leading men as feuding brothers. One is a global star named Felix, who is never seen with the same girlfriend twice and who is always trailed by the same obsequious assistant. The other, Ivan, is a man of the theater, proud of his work as a teacher and of his commitments to his wife of 28 years and the highest principles of art.

The most important thing to know about these people is that the director is played by Penélope Cruz, the box-office idol by Antonio Banderas and the actor’s actor by Oscar Martínez. This is only partly typecasting: Martínez’s renown doesn’t extend as far as Banderas’, but he did win the best acting prize at the Venice Film Festival in 2016. Cruz is, along with her many other gifts, a brilliant comic performer, and as Lola she treads the fine line between crackpot and visionary without losing sight of the character’s integrity. Her frizzy cloud of reddish hair is itself an argument between inspiration and madness.

Lola is also the coach, referee and audience for the cage match that develops between Ivan and Felix, whose professional respect for each other is indistinguishable from contempt. Ivan, something of a method man, believes that his job is to delve into the soul of the person he is pretending to be and find a psychological truth that can be communicated to the audience. Felix is more of a hit-your-mark, say-your-line, collect-your-paycheck kind of guy. Which one is better? The “Official Competition” is between their contrasting approaches, but it’s also a contest of egos and self-images.

Lola eggs them on and keeps them off balance, at once point making them rehearse under a giant boulder suspended from a crane. Her own aesthetic agenda is a bit inscrutable, but she gets results, at least in the rehearsals we witness. The actual auteurs of “Official Competition,” Duprat and Cohn, are much more relaxed, keeping everything at a pitch of genial, low-key farce with a few eruptions of strong feeling.

In the end, this is a one-joke movie — a shaggy-dog metanarrative — but it’s not a bad joke. The production seems to have been undertaken during a time of relatively strict pandemic restrictions, evident in the cavernous sets, the sparsely populated scenes and the social distancing among the actors. The austerity has its advantages: a busier behind-the-scenes comedy might not have been able to offer such a close study of the actors at work, or such a dry and rigorous anatomy of what they do.

I mean Felix and Ivan, yes, but also Banderas, Martínez and Cruz. Banderas, when he feels like it, can be marvelously subtle and affecting as well as magnetic. It’s almost indecent for someone so beautiful to possess such skill, and you might have to go back to the old days — to Gary Cooper, say — to find a matinee idol with equivalent gifts.

This isn’t to declare Banderas the winner. Felix, practicing his Oscar rejection speech when he thinks no one is watching, insists that art is not a competition, and he has a point. You’d have to be a cynic to believe otherwise. But when it comes to movies, and to acting, cynicism is part of the fun.

“Official Competition”

Rated R. Great acting and bad behavior. In Spanish, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 54 minutes. In theaters.

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