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By Kirsty Fairclough | April 4, 2003

Viva!, the UK’s only Spanish film festival began at Cornerhouse, Manchester’s independent cinema and visual arts center on March, 13th with the opening night gala screening of Agustin Diaz Yanes’ fantasy comedy Sin Noticias de Dios (No News From God), starring two of Spain’s biggest box office draws, Penelope Cruz and Victoria Abril.
Abril and Cruz star as angels Lola and Carmen, sent to Earth to save the soul of a boxer . Heaven is a black & white France and Hell is a rather odd English speaking world run by a corrupt Mexican manager. This seemingly inventive film about heaven and hell proved to be a rather listless and plodding affair with Abril’s performance providing the only highlight and Cruz unfortunately proving her limited acting abilities.
A disappointing start, but as the festival got underway, it proved to be entirely unrepresentative of what was to come.
The festival highlights included a retrospective of one of Spain’s most accomplished actors; Eusebio Poncela, who was present at the festival. The best of Poncela’s work included the UK premiere of Alex de la Iglesia’s latest feature “800 Balas” (800 Bullets), a vivacious homage to the Spaghetti Western, further proof of his place as one of Spain’s most inventive auteurs.
Poncela’s accomplished career was represented by films which highlighted his range and depth as an actor. From the surreal Bunuel-esque “Arrebato” to early Almodovar with “Law of Desire”. One of the highlights was Intacto starring Poncela and Max Von Sydow, a dark, atmospheric, thriller about an underground network who gamble in that rare commodity – luck. Directed by Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, with echoes of Fincher, Intacto is a taut and enigmatic, if occasionally slow, film of the type that may find crossover potential given its backing from Momentum.
As well as Poncela’s presence at the festival there were a number of other guests including Alberto Rodriguez and Jimmy Roca; director and actor of “El Traje”, (The Suit) one of the best and funniest films of the festival. “El Traje” is the engaging tale of African immigrant Patricio, who is generously given a new suit by a complete stranger. The suit holds promises of a new life, but doesn’t quite bring him the riches he expected. A delightful film, which explores issues of immigration and racism in a light, but poignant way.
Other guests included Goya award winner Eduard Fernandez star of “Fausto 5.0”, a collaborative project between director Isidro Ortiz and internationally acclaimed Catalan performance group La Fura dels Baus. “Fausto 5.0” is a nightmarish, Croneneberg-esque version of Goethe’s Faust tale. Nothing is what it seems in Fausto and the city of what appears to be Barcelona is transformed into a futuristic and mythical landscape. A melting pot of images and ideas, “Fausto 5.0” is a thrilling cinematic adventure.
This year’s Viva also included screenings of a number of documentaries including “De Salamanca a ninguna parte”. A look back at the work of a group of well known Spanish filmmakers including Luis Garcia Berlanga and Juan Antonio Bardem who attempted to rejuvenate Spanish cinema during its most trying period under the censorship of the Franco regime. “De Salamanca a ninguna parte” uses interviews, clips, and archive footage to explore the history of a group of filmmakers who attempted to change the landscape of cinema from its staid and mythic incarnation to a cinema that reflected the social reality of Spain.
Surely the most poignant of Viva’s documentary strand was “Extranjeras,” directed by Helena Taberna, who livened up the Q and A with heartfelt tales of her journey as a documentary filmmaker. Simply but effectively directed, “Extranjeras” explores the lives of a number of immigrant women living in Madrid. Within the many and varied tales of the women’s lives, all share a love for Spain, yet yearn for a sense of community and attempt, in small but important ways, to maintain their cultural background in the midst of the city.
Amongst the talks and events was Vanilla Eyes: Spain V Hollywood, a discussion of the cultural relationship between Spain and Hollywood using Alejandro Amenebar’s Abre Los Ojos (Open Your Eyes) and its Hollywood remake Vanilla Sky. Cortos por la red: (Shorts on the net) highlighted an international, internet-only short film festival, presided over by some of Spain’s most renowned filmmakers. Development director Jorge Segado presented a selection of films made by some of the jury members, including Juan Carlos Fresnadillo (director of Intacto) and Alex de la Iglesia and offered advice to those wishing to break into the industry.
Viva closed with the gala screening of “El otro lado de la cama” (The Other Side of the Bed), the highest earner and sleeper hit of summer 2002. . A kitsch and colorful musical / comedy about two couples and their complex and interlinked relationships. After the screening, a themed party with songs from the film and from the Spanish discotecas of the 1980s ended ten days of debate and discussion. What came out of the festival was a real sense of Spanish cinema gaining a stronger presence internationally (note Almodovar’s recent Oscar nomination and the increased distribution of Spanish films world-wide) and festivals like Viva are an important platform in that they continue to champion the best of contemporary European cinema in the midst of Hollywood domination.
For more information, visit the Viva! website.

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