Visually sparse, slyly charismatic, and tactfully humorous, Official Competition is a compelling slice of cinema that is thoroughly enjoyable, and aptly provocative. The film opens with a billionaire (Humberto Suárez) who is intent on leaving behind a legacy by funding the greatest possible film of his time. He tasks his subordinates with finding the best project and hiring the finest creators, leading to hot-shot director Lola Cuevas (Penélope Cruz), blockbuster star Félix Rivero (Antonio Banderas), and acclaimed theatre actor Iván Torres (Oscar Martínez) joining forces (and egos) on the project to naïvely create the ‘best’ film ever.
Most of the narrative follows this trio of creative egotism as they antagonise each other both on and off set, marking Official Competition as a true character piece. At the core of the film lied this ‘meta’ exploration or artistic examination, narratively brought to life by Argentinian directing duo Mariano Cohn and Gastón Duprat, and screenwriter Andrés Duprat (older brother to Gastón). Regarding the production of the script, Cohn notes that Official Competition “had the purpose of showing, through fiction, how actors build emotion. Audiences will see the mechanisms, techniques, tactics and procedures involved”. The finished product truly delivers in this regard, aided by sufficient flair and theatrics which render the final film a distinct performance, instead of a mere dramatisation of a ‘behind the scenes’ style special feature.
Of the three main characters, Cruz’s directorial role shines as the natural controller, positioning the rivalling lead actors (Banderas and Martínez) against each other. Their rivalry is not one of going for the same lead part, but rather, going for both parts simultaneously – such is the prevalence of their respective egos. Furthermore, whilst we rarely see external characters dominate the spotlight, the billionaire financier constantly lurks in the background, as does the occasional homeless man, or lowly assistant. The film engages moderately with the classism at play within its world where money is frivolously spent on competition, legacy, and ego.
Another aspect of the film which I simply loved was the architecture, and particularly, how environmental space within Official Competition was composes within shots. At times, the structures in the film are as characterised as the actors themselves, creating a distinction of ethereality to the narrative. The buildings, rooms and furniture felt like a natural stage for the characters to solve how to co-exist in. As such, it was totally unsurprising to hear that the art director of the film, Alain Bainée, had studied to become an architect. Overall, the voluminous space, marked by its sharp edges and bulkiness really worked in adding another dimension of much-needed theatricality to an otherwise visually sparse film which totally relies on characterisation in all regards.
Speaking of theatricality, the trio of leading actors in this film do a splendid job. This is the type of film which tends to waft around as a character piece, and for the most part is very successful in this manner, but I could also see several versions of this film that cannot pull off the characterisation required. So, it makes sense that if the characters are an eccentric director, a renowned theatre actor and a supremely popular movie star, then it is paramount to cast actors who can sell the sincere and egotistical charisma of those roles. In this way, Official Competition takes the slam-dunk casting of Cruz, Banderas and Martínez and heavily relies on their combined gravitas to sell the implied realism of the film-making experience. The result is a very heightened, very theatrical, and very enclosed film. All the acting was more than sufficiently enjoyable, but Banderas in particular is a natural at having fun on screen.
In sum, the directing and acting are both solid, the sets and art direction are totally inspired, and the script is really interesting in a very theatrically stripped-down kind of way. All that being said though, I feel as if Official Competition is good without quite reaching just how good it could be. I don’t believe it’s to fair to criticise films so broadly, especially given that I for one can’t put my finger on what exactly didn’t work for me, but in truth, the total product did not feel like the sum of its parts. Still, I can certainly see Official Competition as a film which will grow on me more with time, but for now, I am left adequately provoked, and contently entertained.