Perhaps the best Pedro Almodóvar film that Pedro Almodóvar didn’t actually write or direct, Official Competition in fact comes from co-directors Gastón Duprat and Mariano Cohn and skewers the filmmaking business in ways I’ve simply never seen done or imagined anyone would have the nerve to do. José Luis Gómez plays billionaire entrepreneur Humberto Suárez, who decides on a whim that he wants part of his legacy to be as the producer of an iconic film that will stand the test of time.
After consulting the best in the business, he hires renowned filmmaker Lola Cuevas (Penélope Cruz) to direct, giving her full creative control over the film adaptation of a beloved novel (for which Suárez paid a pretty penny for the rights), and she decides to hire two very different actors for the lead roles as feuding brothers. One is radical theater actor Iván Torres (Oscar Martínez), who claims to care more about the process and prestige than money or fame. The other is superstar Félix Rivero (Antonio Banderas), who has gone full Hollywood to much acclaim and fortune. They are both legends in their own way, but have wildly different processes when it comes to preparing for a role. Thankfully, their egos are equally matched, and while they don’t exactly get along, game recognizes game in any language.
Most impressively, Lola also has a process to get the best out of her performers—a process that includes a great deal of rehearsal, during which she fine tunes each actor until she is essentially controlling them like puppets. While we never get a true sense of what the book or movie will be about, watching Lola’s eccentric process actually does yield results that the actors at first resist but to which they eventually come around. Both men are hypocrites, naturally, and they constantly test each other with games to prove that one or the other is the better actor. At one point, Félix even fakes (quite convincingly) having a terminal illness; naturally, when everyone thinks he is actually dying, Iván suggests to Lola that perhaps he should play both brother roles.
Of course, the idea of setting out to make a big-budget prestige picture is ludicrous, since throwing money at art doesn’t make the art better; it just makes it more expensive and a bigger target when it is released. All three lead actors are phenomenal and take turns being exceedingly funny, withe Cruz truly dominating every moment she’s in. From her wild hairstyles to her sharp fashion choices, Lola is all about being the alpha in any situation, and as self-centered as her actors can be, they seem to snap in line in order to please her. Both actors must take a deep look at not just who they are, but how they became those people in order to play these parts, and Lola wants their brotherhood to feel real, both in terms of their closeness and their resentment.
Official Competition is a remarkable acting exercise and as authentic and biting a look inside the filmmaking process as you are likely to get in this decade. With so many competing to be the alpha in this arrangement, it’s no surprise who comes out on top, but that’s also not really the point. Lola has much more stacked against her for a variety of reasons, and the fact that she never flinches (even when she temporarily stops speaking to her actors as punishment) is all the proof I needed that she was on the verge of making something genuinely great, perhaps even award worthy. Which is really what making movies is all about, right?
The film is playing theatrically at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema.
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