Official Competition (Spanish title: Competencia Oficial) is a festival film about the making of a festival film, premiering in (not coincidentally) official competition at the 78th Venice International Film Festival. Argentinian filmmakers Gastón Duprat and Mariano Cohn know their audience well, and in their fifth feature film collaboration (after The Distinguished Citizen, also in competition for the Golden Lion in 2016) they succeed in simultaneously mocking and appealing to it. A hilarious high-concept satire with a perfectionist’s eye for plot construction, Official Competition doesn’t take itself — or its medium — too seriously, but glimmers with respect and affection for the form.
The film within the film is born from the end-of-life crisis of pharmaceutical billionaire Humberto Suárez (José Luis Gómez). Surrounded by the detritus of his 80th birthday celebration, he begins to ponder his legacy. What can he create that will carry his name beyond the grave? A bridge, perhaps – his assistant nods in agreement. No, even better: a movie. His assistant tentatively asks, “A movie about what?” It doesn’t matter, it just has to be the best.
In his pursuit of the “best”, the assistant proceeds to buy the rights to a Nobel prize-winning novel (which Humberto doesn’t bother to read) and to bring on Lola Cuevas (Penélope Cruz), a celebrated arthouse director with a reputation for eccentricity. Completing the trinity of inflated egos are the lead actors Felix Rivero (Antonio Banderas) and Ivan Torres (Oscar Martínez), the former a Hollywood sellout of enormous fame and questionable talent, the latter an esteemed theater veteran who inordinately prides himself on humility and artistic integrity. It’s the first time these two industry titans appear together: a fertile source of tension for Lola, and a sure box office draw for the production. That Official Competition is the first film featuring Banderas and Cruz together in leading roles is just one more self-aware joke (and an ironically effective marketing technique) on behalf of Duprat and Cohn.
The true comedic heart of the story is found in the nine days of rehearsal that Lola requires with her actors. Arriving with a gravity-defying red perm, gold palazzo pants (courtesy of costume designer Wanda Morales), and a binder of collages containing what appears to be human hair, she quickly throws her two leading men into a series of increasingly absurd exercises, including reciting their lines underneath a hanging boulder or watching their precious acting awards be destroyed before their eyes. Completely wrapped up in her own self-important sense of process, Lola risks crossing the line into directorial abuse multiple times. Yet there is also a brilliance to these lessons, not only bringing out better acting in Felix and Ivan, but creating scenes that could exist independently as performance art. The audience knows it’s all a satire, but can’t help reveling in the spectacle nonetheless.
Cruz especially succeeds in embodying this fundamentally cinematic struggle between the real and the fake, the sincere and the sarcastic. Her performance shifts between pretension and genuine concern for her actors and her project, and the sight of Lola’s childlike curiosity at watching a TikTok dance (and later desperately trying to learn one) is its own micro-dissertation on the contamination between high and low art. Martinez and Banderas play into this contrast with visible relish, giving voice to the age-old war between art for art’s sake and appealing to the masses. The fun of their relationship is the knowledge that neither side will ever win, but the directors keep the tension high right up until the very last frame.
The vast geometry of Humberto’s modernist palace paired with Arnau Valls Colomer’s precise cinematography only serve to enhance the comedy, providing a minimalist backdrop for the messy antics of the three leads. The writing is equally crisp; if all the jokes land it’s as much thanks to the screenplay as to the talent of the actors. Each scene cleverly delivers comedy and criticism with an echo of larger meaning – all while moving the plot forward and developing the characters, whose admittedly archetypal roles are rendered human with a subtle touch. Towards the end the various pieces of story and theme begin to click together in a way that could be criticized as predictable. But predictability is part of the commentary. These characters, and what they represent, are not new. They have been around as long as art has been around, and trying to reinvent them is a vain pursuit. Rather, Duprat and Cohn seek to have fun with them, and with a festival audience they know could use some laughter every now and then.