VIFF ’21 Review: ‘Official Competition’ is a savvy, hilarious satire

The best comedies are the ones with depth. The ones that layer together stories and satire and lay bare what the filmmakers feel about whatever subject they are tackling. Official Competition is one of these films.

The film opens in the wake of a billionaire’s birthday party, a man looking back on his 80 years and wondering about his legacy. What can he do to ensure he’s remembered? An idea comes to him: a film; A great film. A film directed by and starring the greatest talent available and drawing on a beloved novel as its source. Or maybe a bridge. A bridge would be good. But no, a film is the way to go, and he impulsively buys the rights to a noble prize-winning book, hires an award-winning art-house director, and the two greatest actors of this generation. Of course, when I say he does it impulsively, I mean he has his assistant do it.

Most of the rest of Official Competition is the process of rehearsal, with the director Lola (Penelope Cruz) subjecting the films two stars, Iván (Oscar Martínez) and Félix (Antonio Banderas) to more and more absurd trials and micro-management designed to break down their egos. To tell you much more would spoil the fun, but between watching the pair work while underneath a suspended five-tonne boulder (to enhance the tension of the scene) and physically destroying some of their acting awards, there is plenty of humour to be mined from watching Martínez and Banderas squirm.

Antonio Banderas, Penélope Cruz, and Oscar Martínez in Official Competition

This is all separate from the consideration of Martínez and Banderas personal and professional rivalry within the narrative though, and they are perfectly cast to do so. Playing a pair of brothers with an intense rivalry, Iván (the older, respected theatre actor who is in it for the sake of art and suffering) and Félix (the global movie star who is in it for the fame and fortune) couldn’t be more accurately cast, and neither could Martínez and Banderas to play them. Each plays an extended satire of themselves, this is one of the ways the film layers on subtext and satire, as each of these realities informs the other.

It is perhaps Cruz who steals the show though, with an impossible amount of curly red hair and a knack for cutting people down to size, her Lola is the source of the best setups in the film and some of the biggest laughs that result. Combined with the ease at which she one-ups them in almost every regard, she also claims one of the funniest and starkest moments of the film.

Directors Mariano Cohn and Gastón Duprat allow all of this to breathe and exist in a stark, minimalist environment. Most of the film is set in an empty apartment building with little to no furniture, which leaves the performers with nothing to play off but each other. It’s a masterful choice, and the resulting film feels very stagey, but with performances and a story like this, that is exactly what you want. All three stars get a chance to do some capital-A acting, and whether they’re fighting, throwing a temper tantrum, or confessing difficult (or imagined) truths, there’s nary a wasted scene between them.

Where the film might have an issue is with its length and pacing, which are long and slow respectively. There are big laughs, but some of the setups to those laughs are purposefully tense and cringy to get through. This won’t work for everyone, but the result is that when the punchline lands there’s a much larger release.

Official Competition is an excellent film, and one that I hope has enough star power to play to a wider audience. Cruz, Martínez, and Banderas are all excellent, and the layering of the plot and themes is masterfully handled. Truly, it is a film that will stand the test of time and be remembered, giving its makers a lasting legacy.

But also, a bridge. A bridge would be good.

Rating: 4/5

Official Competition (Competencia Oficial) played as part of the 2021 Vancouver International Film Festival.

2022 Tribeca Film Festival


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