Isaki Lacuesta, David Trueba, Antonio Chavarrías Make Malaga Main Competition Cut

MALAGA — Opening last Friday with “Dragonkeeper,” also in competition, Spain’s Malaga Festival, its biggest dedicated event for movies from Spain and Latin America,  is studded by latest films by Isaki Lacuesta – “Saturn Return,” reportedly fun, broad audience and radical – David Trueba – “The Good Man,” small scale but almost certainly ingratiating – and Antonio Chavarrías’ “Holy Mother,” about an extraordinary real life female figure in Spain’s 9th century Reconquista.

Also in the running is “Rest in Peace,” from notable Argentine writer-director Sebastián Borensztein (“Chinese Takeaway”).

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All are front-runners for some kind of award next Saturday. Prominent also is a bevy of first or second features, featuring from Spain three titles from women directors – gender abuse drama “The Snows,” “Nina,” reportedly a Western set in a northern Spanish town, and tragi-comedy “We Treat Women Too Well” – plus a clutch of debuts from Latin America.

This year’s Competition may, in the final analysis, be judged by how these early features function. 

Opening Night Film

“Dragonkeeper,” (Salvador Simó, Li Jianping, Spain, China)

Malaga’s opening film playing in main competition, its largest title – budgeted at a reported $28 million – and the biggest Spanish animation play of the year. Set in the Han Dynasty, young servant girl Ping’s fantasy adventure which is based on weighty IP – the first title in the best-selling trilogy of Carole Wilkinson – and produced by Movistar Plus+,  Atresmedia Cine (“Klaus”) and China Film Animation. Received with admiration for the titanic effort of co-production and with praise for the portrayal of the pugnacious heroin Ping.“‘Dragonkeeper’ moves and entertains,” says Spain’s La Vanguardia. Sold by SC Films

“Birds Flying East,” (“Pájaros,” Pau Dura, Spain, Romania)

Javier Gutiérrez (“Below Zero”) and Luiz Zahera, tremendous in Rodrigo Sorogoyen’s “The Beasts,” play two men who hit the road in Spain to watch birds – cranes – in Romania as they face mid-life crisis. A dramedic Euro road-movie, also starring Teresa Saponangelo (“The Hand of God”), marking the third feature from Pau Durà (“Formentera Lady”) and his best to date according to early reactions to the film at Malaga, which are also talking up Gutiérrez and Luiz Zahera as best actor candidates.

“La casa,” (Alex Montoya, Spain)

The third feature from the on-the rise Montoya, whose “Lucas,” proved one of the buzz features at 2020’s Malaga festival, sweeping three prizes at its edgier Zonacine sidebar – best film, actor (Jorge Motos) and its Audience Award. Sold by Latido Films, “La Casa” turns on three siblings who, after the death of their father, meet at the family house where they used to spend their summers as children, to decide what to do with the property. Adapting Paco Roca’s graphic novel, with “a bittersweet tone sprinkled with humour, ‘La casa’ talks about family, inheritance and the inexorable passing of time, all under the gaze of the house as a witness,” says the synopsis.  

“Golán,” (Orlando Culzat, Colombia)Culzat’s first feature, supported by the Colombian Film Fund and the Carolina Foundation, unfolds a transformative tale produced by Cinema Co. A family’s mourning trip turns pivotal for 15-year-old Pedro. Amid rituals of toxic masculinity, his encounter with Margarita exposes his family’s decay, challenging him to question deep-rooted values.

“The Good Man,” (“El hombre bueno,” David Trueba, Spain)

A modest film, insists Trueba, a Spanish Academy 2103  best picture Goya winner with “Living is Easy With Eyes Closed.” But, given Trueba’s ability to endow even seemingly simple films with emotion, the feature is already being talked up as one of the Top 10 titles at Malaga. In it, a separating couple travel to Mallorca to the house of an old friend (Jorge Sanz, “If They Tell You I Fell”), a widower, for him to help mediate in the process. Given the location, overlooking a spectacular azure Mediterranean, conversation turns naturally enough to love and loss.

The Good Man
The Good Man

“Un Hipster en la España Vacía,” (Emilio Martínez Lázaro, Spain)

Director of the highest-grossing local film ever in Spain, “A Spanish Affair,” Martínez Lázaro delivers another culture clash comedy, the time round sparked by the progressive protagonist, hell-bent on revitalising emptying rural Spain, to the bemusement of the village he targets. A Prime Video title in Spain.

“Holy Mother,” (“La Abadesa,” Antonio Chavarrías, Spain)

From Spanish giallo “Una ombra en el jardín” (1989) to immigrant-junkie drama “Susanna” (1996) from brother from hell imbroglio “Volverás” (2002) through procedural “Las vidas de Celia” (2005) and Trotsky assassination thriller “The Chosen” (2016), Chavarrías has directed a huge gamut of open arthouse films enrolling in multiple ways a sense of genre. Here, sold by Film Constellation and based on true events, in the 9th century Emma is appointed head of an abbey encharged in repopulating frontier lands abutting Muslim territory.

“The Land Plots,” (“Los terrenos,” Verónica Chen, Argentina)

Chen split critics but certainly made an impact with 2020 Sundance entry “High Tide,” acquired by Netflix, HBO, Movistar Plus+ and Somos TV. “The Land Plots,” Chen’s seventh feature, turns on an ex-surfer whose heart is dead-set on buying a property near to the sea. A local real-estate agent dangles an immoral way of securing the house.

“Little Loves,” (“Los Pequenos Amores,” Celia Rico, Spain)

Produced by Arcadia Motion Pictures, on fire after backing Rodrigo Sorogoyen’s “The Beasts,” Oscar nominated animated feature “Robot Dreams” and Netflix hit “Burning Body.” Rico showed in her debut, “Journey to a Mother’s Room,” selected for San Sebastián’s New Directors, how well she portrays a suddenly evolving mother-daughter relationship. Here, it is a redoubtable mother’s sudden dependence, starring María Vázquez and the always reliable Adriana Ozores. Latido Films sells.

“La mujer salvaje,” (Alán González, Cuba)

Sold by Habanero Film Sales, Cuban González’s direction looks to build a gripping narrative, produced by Cacha Films. In Havana’s slums, a woman’s violent domestic ordeal turns public when a video goes viral. Desperate to protect her son from scandal fallout, Yolanda navigates Havana’s streets, facing familial conflict, community disdain for her wild ways, and personal remorse in her quest. González’s fiction feature debut.

“Lluvia,” (Rodrigo García Saiz, Mexico)

Maybe the buzziest of first features from Latin America which have made Málaga’s main competition cut. Six stories set on the rain-drenched streets of Mexico City where characters react to an unexpected encounter that “makes them glimpse their own souls,”  according to the synopsis. Crucially, the film’s screenwriter is Paula Markovitch, a scribe on Fernando Eimbcke’s “Duck Season” and “Lake Tahoe” and Lorenzo Vigas’ “The Box” and director on “The Prize.”

“Naufragios,” (Vanina Spataro, Argentina, Uruguay)

In “Naufragios,” directed by Argentina’s Vanina Spataro and produced by her label Kinofilm and celebrated Uruguayan production house Mutante Cine, Maite’s journey of heartbreak leads her to a desolate coastal town. Surrounded by the town’s resigned inhabitants, her life drifts until an unconscious sailor’s arrival at the beach presents a pivotal choice: Forge a new path or stay adrift. Spataro makes her directorial debut.

“Nina,” (Andrea Jurrieta, Spain)

Jurrieta’s second feature after “Ana by Day” scored her a best new director Spanish Academy Goya nomination. Reprising narrative elements from Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull,” “Nina” turns on a woman, an actress, who returns to her home town on Spain’s rugged northern coast seeking to exact revenge on a celebrated writer. Starring Spain’s Patricia López Arnaiz (“Ane is Missing”) and Argentina’s Darío Grandinetti (“Talk to Her”), two of the finest actors of two very different generations, “Nina” channels Douglas Sirk melodrama and above all classic Western in a reportedly stylish genre mix, practiced by some of Spain’s most exciting young filmmakers.

“Radical,” (Christopher Zalla, U.S.)

Galvanized by its ensemble cast led by Eugenio Dérbez (“CODA”), crafted by director Zalla and brought to life through the collaboration of 3PAS Studios, Pantelión Films and Participant, “Radical” is rooted in a true story from a Mexican border town. It showcases a teacher’s groundbreaking method to tap into the latent capabilities of his students, blending “optimism with a side of heartbreak,” as noted by Variety. Zalla returned triumphant to Sundance with the project following up his previously awarded debut “Sangre de mi sangre.”

“Rest in Peace,” (“Descansar en Paz,” Sebastián Borensztein)

An upcoming Netflix March 27 release from notable Argentine director Borensztein, a head writer on Daniel Burman’s “Yosi, the Regretful Spy,” and director 2011’s Chinese Takeaway, 2019’s “Heroic Losers,” both starring Ricardo Darín who returns the favor producing “Rest in Peace” out of his label, Kenya Pictures. Here, a debt-drowned man (the excellent Joaquín Furiel) disappears from trace but years later is tempted to return to the family he’s abandoned.

“Saturn Return,” (Isaki Lacuesta, Pol Rodríguez, Spain, France)

Probably Malaga Festival’s biggest buzz title, inspired by Spanish band Los Planetas but since “films about bands or albums are full of lies,” as one character comments, more about the legend of how they made their third album, which changed the course of Spanish indie rock, told through a haze of chain drug use, cigarette smoke, faulty recall, fantasy and flipped POVs. Double Golden Shell winner Lacuesta directs will Pol Rodríguez, who co-directed doc series “Year Zero,” produced among others by Kathryn Bigelow. La Terraza, Aralan, Ikiru, Bteam Prods, Sideral, Capricci, Los Ilusos – produce, tapping into national and regional TV coin and funds. Latido initiates sales at Málaga.

Saturn Return
Saturn Return

“The Snows,” (“As Neves,” Sonia Méndez, Spain)

From Aquí y Allí, behind San Sebastian top winner “Magical Girl” and “Life and Nothing More,” a 2018 Independent Spirits laureate, Méndez’s feature debut turns on a sex tape incident in a snowbound Galician village. One of the best received titles at 2023 Málaga WIP España, now back in main competition. Elamedia distributes in Spain. Cósmica Producións also produces. Sideral sells.

“We Treat Women Too Well,” (“Tratamos demasiado bien a las mujeres,” Clara Bilbao, Spain, France)

Set in post-Civil War 1945 as the Spanish resistance takes over a mail office in the Pyrenees, run by the redoubtably patriotic Remedios Buendía. Hell hath no fury…

Carmen Machi and Antonio de la Torre lead a fine cast. “A clearly black comedy, with a remarkable screenplay by Miguel Barros, integrating humor to narrate a truly tragic story,” says Bilbao. A Prime Video and RTVE pickup for Spain.

“Yana-Wara,” (Tito Catacora, Oscar Catacora, Peru)

Produced by Cine Aymara, “Yana-Wara” weighs in as a poignant film fromTito Catacora and the late Oscar Catacora, who tragically died during production aged 34. It tells the harrowing tale of 13-year-old Yana-Wara, accused of murder, whose life is marred by terrifying visions after encountering evil spirits in forbidden places, unveiling dark undercurrents of tradition and superstition.

More to Come

Callum McLennan contributed to this article.

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