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Film Review: Sometimes Hackneyed “Official Competition” Still Delivers Sharp Barbs

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | June 24th, 2022

Film poster: “Official Competition”

Official Competition (Mariano Cohn/Gastón Duprat, 2021) out of 4 stars.

Satires about the art world run the danger of trafficking in tired stereotypes of moody and/or arrogant creatives, talented and hack alike; their cinematic cousins are no different. In Official Competition, Argentinian filmmaking partners Mariano Cohn and Gastón Duprat (The Distinguished Citizen) come far too close to the edge of burlesque pitfalls for comfort, yet still manage to pull off what becomes, by its end, a pleasantly twisted comedy of ill manners. People behave badly, lessons are decidedly not learned, and if the strokes are often extremely broad and garish, the brush still results in an entertaining portrait of misdeeds made good (depends on who’s judging). Lights, camera, roll sound, and speed into delightful disaster.

Penélope Cruz (Parallel Mothers) stars as Lola Cuevas, an award-winning director hired by a wealthy entrepreneur, Humberto Suárez (José Luis Gómez, Broken Embraces) to helm an adaptation of a book entitled Rivalry. Suárez, an older man, is concerned about his legacy and wants to leave behind something of cultural value. Why a film, rather than a landmark or building? It’s not quite clear, but no matter. Cuevas, a bit of an iconoclast (what visionary isn’t?), chooses two wildly divergent actors as her leads, whose characters in the novel are Cain-and-Abel-like brothers. Félix Rivero (Antonio Banderas, Pain and Glory) is a global movie star, while Iván Torres (Oscar Martínez, The Distinguished Citizen) is a far-less-known theater artist of deep integrity (or so he thinks). The stage is set for conflict, much as it is in the source material from which Cuevas draws her screenplay. Life will imitate art, which in turn will imitate life.

l-r: Antonio Banderas, Penélope Cruz, and Oscar Martínez in OFFICIAL COMPETITION ©IFC Films

The title of the movie hints at all of this, for there is competition within that is multifaceted, multilayered, and more, far beyond the race for awards. Unfortunately, as clever as the comedy cane be, the caricatures are also painfully obvious. We’ve seen the kind of arrogant vapidity that Banderas brings to Félix before, just as we have the no-nonsense brutality of singular imagination that Cruz adds to Cuevas, and the false sense of maverick superiority with which Martínez imbues Iván. Does that mean the humor never works? For sure not. There is much to appreciate in the situations, even if the writers (Cohn and Duprat, joined by the latter’s brother, Andrés) aren’t quite as witty as they think they are. In that, they have a lot in common with their characters, at least.

But there are wonderful surprises in store, as the narrative wraps in on itself and delivers intriguing twists, right up to the end. Are we any closer to understanding the value of art and the cost on its makers? Not really, but we have enjoyed the journey (more or less) that brought us to the conclusion. There are no winners in this contest, and maybe that’s the point. Everyone is flawed, everyone takes themselves too seriously, and no reward is too small to justify any kind of ethical compromise. Humanity is on display in all its ugly glory. In this satire, therefore, the joke’s on us.

Penélope Cruz in OFFICIAL COMPETITION ©IFC Films
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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), as well as a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is a former cohost of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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