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In partnership with the Cork Film Festival, the European Parliament is providing free screenings of three movies competing for the Lux Prize. This is an award given out by the latter body to help significant European films find an audience beyond their national market. Each week, in the run-up to the festival, Stephen Porzio will spotlight one of the competing titles. The second entry is Spanish political thriller The Realm.
The Realm is a movie they tend not to show in mainstream multiplexes anymore, aside from the odd time during Oscar season. It’s a whip-smart, razor-sharp and fiercely contemporary political thriller, shot cinematically with gripping urgency.
A winner of seven Goyas (the Spanish equivalent to the Academy Awards) and deservedly so, we meet anti-hero and politician Manuel (Antonio de la Torre) on a beach wrapping up a work-related phone call. He exhales while gazing out on a gorgeous coastline, a noteworthy moment given for the rest of The Realm’s 130-minute runtime – he will barely have a chance to breathe.
In one of the film’s many muscular long tracking shots, we follow Manuel as he moves from the beach to a seafood restaurant. There he and his party’s members dine out on shrimp lunches while joking about where they will holiday. These things, along with yacht parties and expensive watches, we come to learn are being funded by siphoning EU subsidies, repeated tax fraud and various other illegalities.
Co-writer and director Rodrigo Sorogoyen (whose follow-up Madre screened at Venice Film Festival this year) plunges viewers without exposition into Manuel’s daily life, one which consists solely of running from appointment to appointment with a variety of shady types. While the specifics take a while to parse together, the audience knows from the get-go corruption is endemic in this political sphere. As Manuel tells a younger greener eared party member: “If you really want to change things in the real world, this is how it’s done,” to which he gets the reply: “What a bunch of gangsters.”
After a couple of scenes, the plot does begin to form. When older politician Frias (Josep Maria Pou) is diagnosed with throat cancer, he tells Manuel he wants him to be his replacement as regional president of their party. This is threatened, however, when our anti-hero becomes embroiled in a scandal after getting caught with his hand in the cookie jar. Sold out by his fellow bent party members and expected to play scapegoat – despite Manuel being just a cog in a bigger machine – he refuses to lay down. Instead, he makes manoeuvres to either get himself out of the mess or turn informant to bring down his entire party.
Doubling as a character drama about a man’s life imploding and an odyssey through the Spanish political realm, the film is a winning cocktail. Two-time Almodovar collaborator de la Torre excels in an intense lead role. With his square stone-like jaw and quaffed hair, he starts the drama looking like a pillar of political strength. However, as everybody turns on him – he is forced to send his family to Canada, people spit at him on the street, old friends stop returning his calls – and as the noose tightens around his neck we begin to see cracks in his façade.
There’s no scene in which de la Torre does not appear. Always set to pounding and propulsive techno music, the camera in long takes consistently claustrophobically follows him, resulting in a dynamic and kinetic looking film. This is never more evident than in The Realm’s last act – an agonisingly tense white-knuckler with echoes of Gaspar Noe and his frequent DoP Benoit Debie’s technical feats. Looking for something he can use as leverage against his party members, Manuel makes a shocking discovery – one which makes him even more of a liability. In the final third, his fight to expose the truth becomes a fight for his life.
Manuel isn’t a likeable character. He did everything of which he is accused. He is a white-collar thief. He is only considering informing not out of some moral obligation but vengeance against those who threw him to the wolves. That said, we do end up somewhat empathising with him. Firstly, he is someone who clearly cares for his family. Amidst his busy work life, he finds time to bond with his daughter over her love of swimming and when he talks about getting into politics to give his family a better life, it’s believable.
From his interactions with the various people in his realm, it’s also believable when he says: “What I did was nothing special … What did I do? Fit into a machinery that’s been greased since my grandfather’s days.” Everyone in The Realm is presented as ethically dubious to an extent. Manuel’s confidant Cabrera (an amazing Luis Zahera) climbed his way from a working-class background to being a high-ranking politician by essentially becoming a fixer for his wealthy higher-ups. La Ceballos (Ana Wagener), the party member who scolds our anti-hero publicly behind closed doors admits to him that the act was just for show. The elderly dying Frias makes veiled threats against Manuel’s life to get him to keep his mouth shut.
Even the decent characters are too caught in the moral quagmire. Alvarado (Francisco Reyes), a younger politician presented as having zero tolerance for corruption and dubbed by Manuel ‘patron saint of the honest’ decides to blackmail a political rival to advance his career. Meanwhile, the TV journalist Manuel embroils in his plan, Amaia (Barbara Lennie), maybe at times acts less out of the public good and more to appeal to her bosses inextricably tied to the powers in office.
It’s telling we never find out whether Manuel’s party is left or right leaning. To Sorogoyen and co-writer Isabel Pena, it doesn’t matter. To them, the system itself is flawed, the old axiom of absolute power corrupting absolutely. It may not be a new message. But in 2019, it’s a mighty relevant one.
The Realm will be shown on Tuesday, November 12 in the Gate Cinema. For more information, see here.