Venice 2021 review: Competencia Oficial (Gastón Duprat & Mariano Cohn)

“Maybe we shouldn’t read too much into the films we watch, and simply enjoy them. And there is much to enjoy in Competencia Oficial, where three true artists show that art doesn’t have to be pretentious at all.”

Sometimes we shouldn’t be too self-serious and should have a good laugh at our own expense. Let us define ourselves by our flaws, our pettiness, our mistakes, by the silly way we overestimate our role in life and what we have to say. It’s exactly what the three actors at the center of Gastón Duprat and Mariano Cohn’s Competencia Oficial (Official Competition) do, and they have the accolades to point at if needed. But those accolades don’t matter, as they will gladly make fun of their own image, the creative process, and the film industry in general, including festivals like the one this film is playing (and in the Official Competition, no less; how meta!) and the possible prizes they entail. One of them might even win a Volpi Cup for their performance, because despite ridiculing their craft, each of them shows that they in fact are great artists.

A rich industrialist (José Luis Gómez, himself a former Best Actor winner in Cannes) turns 80. He wants to leave something behind, a legacy, now that the end is rapidly approaching. A bridge, perhaps? No, a film! His money buys him the rights to a novel he hasn’t read, and next he hires a director whose films he has never seen: Lola (Penélope Cruz, with an impressive set of curls). She takes her art very seriously, as the two actors in her film will soon find out. Iván (Oscar Martínez) is a revered character actor, a man who looks down with disdain upon the work of his co-star. Félix (Antonio Banderas) is an actor with worldwide fame for less serious fare, a star with a matching lifestyle: sexy women, fast cars, active social media accounts. It doesn’t take long for tension to rise between the two men, who waste no opportunity to step over each other in an effort to win over Lola. The director herself drives them mad with her acting exercises during rehearsals. They fight, they cry, they argue, but over time they do reach a point where the shoot can truly begin. And then something unexpected happens.

Competencia Oficial is a comedy, which is a welcome change of pace after a few days of serious cinema. Some of the jokes are cheap shots, others gleefully villainous (Martínez’s character accusing Banderas of being one of those Latin actors who put on a bit of color to make it in the epicenter of tastelessness, Hollywood, in particular hits close to home). It isn’t all laughs though, because underneath the humor is a serious look at the creative process that goes into making a film. Most situations created by Duprat and Cohn are hyperbolic, just as the characters are caricatures (the pretentious director, the serious actor, the famous star). But once it gets to a test shoot of the closing scene of the film they are making, both actors knock it out of the park. What started with silly exercises and pompous dick-measuring eventually results in the creation of art. Duprat and Cohn eventually can’t help it and let this moment lead to more hilarity, but this one scene does show that there is a method to the madness that making a film entails.

Effectively a three-hander, each of the film’s main actors is game to plunge head-first into Duprat and Cohn’s satire. Banderas and Martínez, essentially playing outsized versions of themselves, have no qualms about showing their ugliest side, yet also show just what great actors they are. A heartfelt confession by Banderas in front of a huge screen that shows him in close-up reminds us how good he can be. He has the awards to prove it too, though Cruz throws them into a shredder during one of her crazy stunts to get the actors on edge. She herself is in great comedic form playing the artsy director. When a journalist at a press conference reads too much pretentious mumbo-jumbo into her art, she goes off on a tirade on what it means if we say that art is ‘good’. Art just is, she argues. It is a serious note on which to end a great satire on the art of filmmaking. Maybe we shouldn’t read too much into the films we watch, and simply enjoy them. And there is much to enjoy in Competencia Oficial, where three true artists show that art doesn’t have to be pretentious at all.