The Agony and the Ecstasy: Spanish Cinema at San Sebastian

in 62nd San Sebastian International Film Festival

by José Luis Losa

The presence of Spanish cinema in the official section of the San Sebastian Film Festival has always been a double-edged sword. Under José Luis Rebordinos, Spanish cinema at the festival has been characterized by films which are far from mainstream. Directors such as Isaki Lacuesta, Javier Rebollo, Fernando Franco, Manuel Martin Cuenca and Jose Maria de Orbe represent the alternative side of Spanish cinema. But this commendable, courageous approach exposes the festival to criticism from the more conservative sectors of the press and industry, which means that these directors have been disproportionately attacked.

This has some troubling consequences. Isaki Lacuesta’s The Double Steps (Los pasos dobles) won the Golden Shell in 2011 but it was not successful commercially. The Dead Man and Be Happy (El muerto y ser feliz) and Wonder (La herida), which won the Silver Shell in 2012 and 2013 respectively, were similarly punished at the box office.

Therefore it is heartening to note the definitive triumph this year of Carlos Vermut’s Magical Girl, which won both the Golden Shell for best film and the Silver Shell for best director, a feat not accomplished since the great Claude Chabrol won in 1997 with The Swindle (Rien ne va plus). Crucially, the victory of this young and emerging filmmaker has received no pushback from critics. This is significant because Vermut is almost a newcomer, with only one previous feature, Diamond Flash (2011). His winning film is a pastiche of genres, a reflection of his powerful personal style: an extreme form of giallo which shows the influences of Tarantino, Almodovar, Iñárritu, and Japanese manga.

Spanish cinema was acclaimed across the board, with Alberto Rodríguez’s Marshland (La isla mínima) winning the Silver Shells for best actor and best cinematography. This film represents the strengths of mainstream Spanish cinema; it is a thriller in which two police officers investigate the murder of young girls by a psychopath. As he showed in his previous film, Group 7 (Grupo 7), Rodríguez is able to recreate film noir in a style that is genuinely Spanish, as well as making a movie which is understandable and appealing for an international audience.

By consensus, Spanish cinema now has two clearly exportable films. It is a historic moment, and more importantly, it indicates a promising future for the two directors: Rodríguez and, above all, Vermut.

Edited by Lesley Chow