Official Competition is an absurdist look at the miraculous process we call filmmaking. It’s a miracle that any film gets made. So many things have to go right in a process that is known for having so many things going wrong. However, prestige and power can come with artistic creation. People dream of seeing their name in lights and that’s why Humberto Suárez (José Luis Gómez) wants to fund a film.
On his eightieth birthday, surrounded by a multitude of extravagant gifts, Humberto feels empty. He’s missing something intangible. He wants to be immortalized and decides to create a legacy that will outlive him. His first idea is to have a bridge built and named after him. Then he considers producing and fully funding a film as a more interesting alternative. Humberto loves movies, so this feels like the best means of cementing a legacy for himself. He calls upon art house director Lola Cuevas (Penélope Cruz), renowned theatre actor Iván Torres (Oscar Martínez), and international movie star Félix Rivero (Antonio Banderas).
The contrast of the billionaire businessman and the director at the height of her craft is simply delightful. Moviemaking is a business, but it lacks the stability and predictability of other endeavors. Take Star Wars, for example. So few theatres in the United States ordered a copy of that film in 1977 that Fox required them to order Star Wars in order to be eligible for the hotly anticipated The Other Side of Midnight. It’s impossible to know what will land with audiences. Movies with the best director, best writer, best actors, biggest budget, etc. may fail miserably, while a scrappy movie made on a shoestring budget with unknowns goes on to make millions.
This inexplicable world of movies is what adds an underlying humor to Official Competition. Funding a movie is not the same thing as buying a bridge with your name on it. There is nothing safe in filmmaking and every film is a risk. Humberto believes he can guarantee the success of his film by only going after the best. Lola has won a Palme d’Or, Iván and Félix are incredible actors with various awards, and Humberto spends an exorbitant amount of money on the rights to a book that won the Nobel Prize. He thinks that by compiling all of these ingredients, he will have a surefire success. In a way he does, but only in the sense that everyone involved has varying ideas of what success is.
The film itself is quite meandering, and watching a movie about making a movie is especially noticeable here. Official Competition is colored with a realness that elevates it beyond its absurdity, absurdity is essential in the creation of art. Even the most serious, dramatic films have an inescapable ridiculousness about them. At the end of the day, filmmaking is adults playing dress up and pretending. What makes this art so different from the plays children put on in their basements? What elevates a project to something truly great? Is it the effort that goes into the production, the exercises and the rehearsals, or is it all just a shot in the dark?
It’s hard to be upset about the film’s lackadaisical pace for most of the runtime because the performances are extraordinary. The film is Cruz, Banderas, and Martínez showing off for the audience. It’s a showcase of pure talent (although the film will argue there are different ways to measure talent) while poking fun at the actors and the critics, like myself, who will write about the film. Art is simultaneously a farce and essential to humanity.
Underneath the humor and the eccentric rehearsal antics, Humberto’s question of how he will be remembered is the heartbeat of the narrative. It’s human nature to be concerned with how people see you and how people will remember you after you die. Not even how, but if people will remember you at all. There’s an obsessive mentality in many artists who try to create something that will outlive them. A piece of art that makes their name eternal, but of course that’s not the sort of thing the artist can choose. For better or for worse, remembrance is in the hands of the public. The same public Iván has spent the movie insulting. Yet they are responsible for dictating what his legacy will be.
Ultimately, Official Competition is a tad too long and a bit repetitive. Similar themes are revisited over and over, to lessening levels of effectiveness. Even then, it’s difficult to fault the script for elongating the audience’s time with these characters. Perhaps this critique is too kind, based on the immense charisma the actors maintained throughout the film. Without them, the script offers only a surface look at art as it is being created.