Sunday, December 11, 2011

SCN: Chema de la Peña's 23-F tracks the Spanish military's scary but cuckoo coup

Is Spain once again tending toward the right? In last month's election, the Spanish Socialist Workers' Party suffered a galling defeat, while the conservative People's Party easily garnered the most votes, which ensures a new, right-wing Prime Minister of Spain. Well, at least this guy was democratically elected, rather than via the kind of military coup that began The Spanish Civil War and led to 40 years of Franco-dom.

The Spanish military -- a branch of it, at least -- tried another such coup a few years after Franco's death, and that attempted coup is the subject of the riveting, thrilling and surprising (to an American like TrustMovies, at least) new film 23-F The title -- which includes the words "la película," evidently to distinguish it from the two Spanish TV miniseries broadcast in 2009, which were made on the same subject and used this same 23-F title -- comes from the date on which the coup began: February 23, 1981. Directed by Chema de la Peña, shown above, and written by Joaquín Andújar, the film begins slowly and quietly as a military leader (played by Paco Tous, below, center) dresses for the day and then bids his wife goodbye over breakfast. Those moments are practically the last time we're able to take a breath, as the momentum builds and the tension crackles from there onwards.

What surprised me most about this movie is that my companion, who knows little about Spanish history or politics, was able to follow the movie relatively well and found it as entertaining and eye-opening as I did. In yesterday's interview with Alberto Morais, the filmmaker notes the incompetency of the coup's leaders, and thank heaven for it. (Were a military as efficiently brutal as Franco and his team at the helm, we would have seen numerous dead bodies and a successful coup.)

Andújar and de la Peña manage to show us the near-comedic element of these men, while still scaring the pants off us, and this is no small victory for the filmmakers. I am unfamiliar with the work of Paco Tous, who plays the military man Tejero, but I would not be surprised to learn he was a comedian, for his performance is tight and near one-note much of the time, which makes him seem almost funny and yet frightening in his odd dedication. We never know how -- or how strongly -- he will react. He may be a straight-ahead guy heading straight for insanity, but there is nothing devious about him.

On the other hand, the military leader behind Tejero and others involved in the coup-- Alfonso Armada, played by Juan Diego (above, right) -- could not be more devious (or cowardly). In his dealings with everyone, he is clearly putting Armada first, having his cake and eating it, too.

The man who comes closest to being the hero of the film -- rightly so, if what we see here is at all truthful -- is Juan Carlos I, the reigning King of Spain, played very well by Fernando Cayo (above, and last seen at last year's SCN as the surprising military leader in Paper Birds). This man appears to be that fairly rare bird, decent royalty who tries to feel for and understand the people under his wing. No wonder he has remained so popular with such a large majority of his countrymen, left-leaning and right.

23-F, a crackerjack thriller that let us see the inner workings (and not-workings) of a military coup about as well as any film I recall, screens as part of the FSLC's  Spanish Cinema Now at the Walter Reade Theater on Wednesday, December 14, at 8:40 and Friday, December 16, at 2:30 pm.

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