Monday, December 13, 2010

SCN: an artist -- of cartoons and cons -- highlights Óscar Aibar's EL GRAN VÁZQUEZ

You might, if so inclined, refer to Manuel Vázquez Gallego, the leading based-on-life character in Óscar Aibar's new film EL GRAN VÁSQUEZ, as a scamp.  Although he's a fine -- and quite popular -- cartoonist, he's also a thief, liar, con man and, oh, take your pick of several other not-so-hot descriptions. But as he is also funny, clever and even occasionally endearing, you kinda like the guy, nasty piece of crap that he sometimes is. And because he is played by that consummate Spanish thespian Santiago Segura, after awhile you're really just putty in this talented actor's hands. He'll make you love his charac-ter, despite the fact that Vázquez's actions are often plain awful.

Of course, the film takes place in 1960s Barcelona, when Spain was under the "guidance" of Francisco Franco, so any little bit of self-serving deception might also be seen as a kind of "protest" against the fascist dictator and his all-too-willing, everywhere-you-look underlings. Maybe. Or the guy might just have been a nasty, uncaring piece of (talented) trash. This duality haunts the movie from its first scene through to its last. Yet it also gives the film an odd and invigorating fizz. If we don't have to like our protagonist, this frees us to see him whole, without having to give any approval. Writer/director Aibar, shown at left, sees to it that we're rather royally entertained, even as we'd like to kick this guy's teeth in from time to time.

A bigamist who was awfully good at fathering children that he didn't (or couldn't) take care of, the cartoonist had, by the end of his life, seven wives (we learn this from the closing credits). We meet but two of these, though the duo is plenty to keep him busy and us entertained. Shown below, center left, is one of the wives (played by a very game Mercè Llorens), as she receives the many benefits of a Vázquez hotel "con."

We view a number of these "cons" along the way, from the movie's opening scene through its finale. Each is as different as it is clever. Some of the philosophy behind the scams is provided during a walk taken by the artist and his eldest son (played by newcomer Hector Vidales), during which father offers son helpful life lessons that are very nearly as funny as they are cynical and bleak.

Midway along, life -- and the authorities -- catch up with our anti-hero and the movie turns, but only for a time, dour.  Segura's performance, a rich one, tones itself down appropriately, before rising back to life toward the finale. When his nemesis throughout the movie, played with a nice mix of relish and propriety by Álex Angulo (below, center), finally gets his comeuppance, the moment is so perfectly filled with every tiny bit of information that has built up along the way that its payoff is extraordinarily precise, funny and satisfying.

As a filmaker, Aibar sticks close enough to mainstream to satisfy the mass audience. He has the comic strips occasionally come to animated life, which helps us appreciate their liveliness and how they probably appealed to the public of their time. As writer, Aibar covers the necessary bases -- high points, low points -- of his subject's career, while rather cleverly insinuating Spain's politics, economics and culture into the mix.

Just as does the recently-screened SCN film Paper Birds, this one jumps ahead to the end of its main character's days -- with a scene that proves equally funny and moving, showing how very little has really changed in this man. Considering that they are working within the realm of mainstream movie biography, Señores Aibar and Segura have given us a very satisfying film.

El Gran Vázquez will screen one more time at the Walter Reade: this Thursday, Dec. 16, at 4pm. As of now, no US distribution is in the works, but maybe we can hope for eventual DVD or VOD release.

You can click here to see the entire Spanish Cinema Now program.

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