Neruda: the postmodern biopic

Written by Andrés Buesa. Posted in CCSBlog

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Neruda (2016, Pablo Larraín)

In one of the first scenes of Neruda, the Chilean Nobel Prize poet –played by Luis Gnecco– has a conversation with former President of the Republic Arturo Alessandri (Jaime Vadell). The scene takes place in a room where they are having tea, but then shifts suddenly to a staircase –and then to the Senate and back to a different room– without any interruption in the dialogue between the characters. Similar “spatial jumps” take place at other key moments in the film. The film seems to be suggesting that the conversation may have taken place in any of those spaces –or it might not have taken place at all. It does not really matter. By means of this narrative technique, the film highlights its own fictional nature. It asserts, from the very beginning, that recreating what really happened is far from its aim.

The same visual approach is used in the scene that follows: a dialogue between Chilean President González Videla (Alfredo Castro) and Óscar Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal), the detective sent to arrest Neruda. But this time, the self-conscious element is also emphasised by the use of a voice-over narrator. The narrative voice belongs to detective Peluchonneau, the only non-historical character in the film. His fictional origin, together with the literary tone he uses to narrate and the fact that he sometimes speaks about himself in third person, constructs him as a character that might have been written by Neruda. Through the use of this very specific type of narrator, the film is again blurring the line between fiction and reality.

What these examples prove, ultimately, is that Neruda is not a conventional biopic; maybe not even a biopic. We are used to biographical films –The King’s Speech (Tom Hooper, 2010), Lincoln (Steven Spielberg, 2012) or The Theory of Everything (James Marsh, 2014), to name a few– that try to reconstruct the life of historical figures as accurately as possible. The approach these movies tend to have towards reality is to avoid self-conscious elements of any sort, so as to preserve the illusion of reality. But that is exactly what I have never liked about them: the more they try to hide that they are fiction films, the less I enjoy them. Neruda, on the other hand, separates itself from this tradition. While conventional biopics try to reenact the “real” life of their protagonists, Larraín’s film does not. The filmmaker himself states that “if you want to learn something about Neruda’s life, don’t watch the film”. That is, Neruda is based on the postmodern assumption that truth or reality do not really exist; and therefore it is not a film about a real character, but a film that uses a historical figure and the myth around him to construct a fiction of its own. If it can be considered a biopic, it is no doubt a postmodern one.

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The Shape of the Other

Written by Andrés Buesa. Posted in CCSBlog

The Shape of Water (Guillermo del Toro, 2017)

A couple of weeks ago, The Shape of Water (Guillermo del Toro, 2017) won this year’s Oscar for Best Picture. In the times of the Me Too campaign, Love is Love, and the critique of the lack of racial diversity in Hollywood, a film about the acceptance of difference has been chosen by the Academy as the best of the year. Del Toro, in his acceptance speech, advocated for the use of fantasy to “to tell stories about the things that are real in the world today”, and he explicitly acknowledged the influence of another film of this genre which also deals with the issue of difference: Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982).

The similarities between the two are quite easy to grasp: they both focus on the encounter with an Other –an extra-terrestrial or an amphibian god from South America, it doesn’t really matter- and how the characters in the films are able to accept and understand that otherness when they face it. However, there is a clear difference between the two: who is chosen to meet with the Other. Spielberg’s film narrates the encounter between “normal” people –children, but still from a white, middle-class family– and E.T; while The Shape of Water focuses on a set of characters who belong to those parts of society traditionally left aside in movies: a mute orphaned cleaning woman (Sally Hawkins), her gay neighbour (Richard Jenkins) and her African American co-worker (Octavia Spencer). Each of them is, in his own way, an outsider in the American society of the 1950s. This way, while E.T. was a film about the “normal” accepting the Other, The Shape of Water is more about a group of “others” helping a different type of otherness.

This does not mean, of course, that the latter is necessarily a better film, but it points to cultural changes in the intervening thirty-plus years: the Other is seen this time through the eyes of the outsider instead of the eyes of the normative. It is always good news that the Academy, as it already did last year with Moonlight (Barry Jenkins, 2016), starts to open its scope to films not only about difference, but told from the point of view of the different.

Let's Talk About the Peach

Written by Andrés Buesa. Posted in CCSBlog

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Call me by your name (Luca Guadagnino, 2017)

If you have seen Call me by your name, you will remember the peach scene. Even if you have only heard about Call me by your name, you probably know about it. Elio (Timothée Chalamet) carves out the center of a peach and uses it to help him masturbate. Not a common thing to be shown in a film, I guess. That is maybe why it has been defined by Vanity Fair as “2017's most outrageous sex scene”, and it appears in every single interview given by the film’s director (Luca Guadagnino) and lead actors (Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer). Everyone is talking about the peach. I have the feeling that all this controversy around the scene has somehow trivialized its the meaning. This moment in the movie is not just an unjustified provocation in order to catch the attention of the critics. It was already there in the novel in which the film is based (André Aciman’s Call me by your name), and it has a role to play within the film’s discourse. I would like to suggest that, beyond the controversy, the peach is a key symbol to understand Elio’s negotiation of his own sexuality.

Peaches and apricots appear in several moments during the first part of the film: in Oliver’s (Armie Hammer) first breakfast in the house, he asks about the orchards in the garden; Elio is holding a peach when Oliver touches his back – the first time there’s some sort of intimate contact between them and there is a discussion of the etymology of the word “apricot”. Therefore, the film consciously draws attention to these fruits as a symbol to be interpreted by the spectator. This idea is emphasised by the several shots of orchards that are placed between scenes. To some extent, then, fruits (apricots and peaches) are there from the beginning, even if unrealized by Elio. Exactly like his own sexuality: latent, but nor explored until Oliver’s arrival. Read this way –the peach standing for Elio’s concealed sexuality- the famous scene has a deeper meaning than it seems. It is a powerful way to Elio’s relation to his own sexuality: his wish to explore and enjoy something that has always been part of him, but at the same time is new and unexpected.

Yes, I know it may seem a bit farfetched. It is still a scene of someone masturbating with a peach. But unlike another famous filmic moment mixing sex and food (Last Tango in Paris’ butter scene), this time it is perfectly coherent to the film as a whole and it is properly integrated in it. So yes, let’s keep talking about the peach. But as a meaningful moment within the movie, not just as a trivial and provocative sex scene.

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As Time Goes By

Written by Andrés Buesa. Posted in CCSBlog

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 120 BPM (Beats Per Minute) (Robin Campillo, 2017)

Sean, Thibault, Sophie, Jérémie, Max, Germain. They all belong to ACT UP. They are activists. They fight. In Robin Campillo’s 120 BPM (Beats Per Minute), they demand action to combat AIDS. Most of them are infected, and unless they find an effective treatment, they are going to die. Literally, their time is coming to an end. One of the film’s most striking achievements is its ability to make that feeling visible and central to the narrative: to convey, by means of filmic strategies, that the characters’ are simply running out of time.

Beyond the specific moments in which that idea is verbalised (“We don’t have the time. We’re dying”, “I don’t have time to waste”), there are reminders of it all the way through: specks of dust that become infected cells, while the music beat from a disco turns into a heartbeat; Sean’s (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart) breath slowly fading away while we see the Seine River turned into a blood stream; his ashes spilled over a pharmaceutical gathering while the sound of a heartbeat suddenly stops. All these audacious scenes created by Campillo, combining both the visual and the aural, follow the same pattern: while a rhythmic sound makes us aware of the unavoidable passing of time, the image focuses on AIDS’ devastating consequences.

Apart from dialogues and specific scenes, the flow of the narrative also seems to convey the same idea. The film is divided into two halves, with Jérémie’s (Ariel Borenstein) death as the turning point. The first part is more focused on ACT UP as a group, on collective meetings and actions, and therefore it has a more dynamic rhythm. But as soon as attention turns from collective fight to Sean’s individual fight, the pattern changes. The second half is devoted to him. He slowly realises that his time is coming to an end, and this is reflected in the narrative strategies used: longer scenes, no soundtrack, and more stillness in terms of framing. The effect is both contradictory and powerful: the fact that time seems to slow down helps to emphasise the awareness of its passing. The whole of this second part, then, feels like some sort of elegy in which death –where time eventually leads- is always at the forefront.

Time, ultimately, is an essential element to any film. All films structure and manipulate time in a specific way. What makes 120 BPM (Beats per Minute) an interesting example is the way the film incorporates its discourse on time –that it is finite, especially for the characters- by means of visual, aural and narrative features.

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The Power of Sisterhood

Written by Andrés Buesa. Posted in CCSBlog

The Beguiled (Sofia Coppola, 2017)BEG onesheet

At one point in Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled (2017), Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman), the leader of a girls’ school in Virginia during the American Civil War, considers the possibility of hosting a wounded Union soldier, Corporal McBurney (Colin Farrell), at the house. She asks herself and the others what they can learn from the presence of the corporal. The five girls left at the school give several answers: the experience can teach them the value of compassion; it can remind them that the war is still going on, or it can even show them that there is something else in the world besides school. None of them mentions, though, the true lesson that they will learn in the course of the film: the value of sisterhood. Coppola’s remake of a 1971 film (The Beguiled, Don Siegel) focuses on the behaviour of these women as a group, and exemplifies through their actions--and their mistakes--what sisterhood is: women’s ability to work and stand together, prioritizing the group over their individual concerns.

The idea of sisterhood runs through the entire film. The insistence on framing the seven women together conveys that the group itself, rather than each of them separately, is the central character in the plot. Once they have been established as a unity, the film draws a progression that goes from the breaking of their union caused by McBurney’s presence, to its restoration, thus accepting sisterhood as the answer to the problems he has created. It may seem a bit vague in these terms, but the evolution can be exemplified by analysing two specific scenes from the movie: the two dinners that the group shares with the corporal. The plot intentionally includes two similar dinners (same guests, same location) but with very different meanings.

The first one takes place halfway through the movie and it stands for the type of behaviour that undermines sisterhood instead of reinforcing it. They exaggerate their “feminine” ways in order to attract the corporal: they all dress up for him, they giggle while they talk, and they pick on each other as they try to draw McBurney’s attention. In a word, what we see is a group of girls fighting each other for a man, breaking the unity they were supposed to have. As a result of this, harmony in the house is broken: Miss Alicia (Elle Fanning) seduces McBurney and when Miss Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) finds out, she accidentally pushes him down the stairs. In a way, it is the lack of sisterhood that triggers the problems they have with the corporal in the last third of the film.

Only by restoring that sense of sisterhood, then, will they be able to overcome that situation. And that is exactly what happens in the second dinner they have with McBurney. They all dress up just the same, and they prepare a lavish dinner for him, but this time their aim is very different: not to seduce him but to get rid of him. They collaborate together, as the plate of poisonous mushrooms passes through all their hands. They use the same “feminine” polite manners as the first time, but as a weapon against the corporal and not as a weapon against each other. And most important of all, they do not blame each other for what has happened: even if it is Edwina who pushed him down the stairs, they all accept their part of responsibility and, as a result, they save her life when they prevent her from eating the mushrooms. The whole dinner, despite its tragic ending, is an example of sisterhood between the seven members of the school.

Through the killing of the corporal, then, sisterhood is restored at the school. The Beguiled, like the critically acclaimed TV series Big Little Lies, teaches us the value of women standing together when they face a threat. It is not that all men cause problems and have to be considered a menace–that is, it is not an attack on men. It just shows that, when men do become a threat, women can successfully deal with it as a group, always prioritizing their unity over the individual. 

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Proud Corazón

Written by Celestino Deleyto. Posted in CCSBlog

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Coco (Lee Unkrich, Adrian Molina, 2017)

Disney (now Disney Pixar) has been walking the ideological tightrope for decades. It’s always easy to find fault with the individual movies and with the whole cultural discourse of the studio as a whole, especially when we are talking about a multi-million entertainment company whose major goal is to make bucks. Given that, since at least The Little Mermaid, the films have actively sought to place themselves at the centre of cultural debates, critical, often disparaging, opinions have been raging. Yet, it would be unfair to deny praise where praise is due. Recently, it has become even harder to ignore the empowering dimensions of the studio’s offerings: after Frozen and Moana disarmed most critics, now comes Coco to keep the ideological party going.

Visually stunning and emotionally powerful, for my money the best part is its linguistic approach. The story takes place in Mexico and the characters, dead and alive, are all Mexican. I have only seen the “original” version in English in which the characters speak and sing mostly in Chicano English, that is, English with a Mexican accent, interspersed with a plethora of Spanish words, sentences and turns of phrase. By treating the Mexican tradition of el día de los muertos as a Disney fantasy, the movie runs the risk of trivializing and exoticizing an “other” culture, yet Miguel, the hero, is a regular Disney child hero who speaks like any other contemporary Disney child hero, except that his accent is recognizably Chicano, an accent that is more than familiar to any U.S. citizen yet still nowadays mostly ignored in mainstream culture, including Hollywood.

Culturally, the result is a film that is both U.S. American and Mexican at the same time, like Chicano culture: linguistically Mexicano del Norte, culturally Mexican, the characters speak and sing songs in a language that is simultaneously both. I don’t know how viewers and critics in Mexico have reacted to this cultural hybridity, or indeed what Chicanos think of it, but I have found the experience inspiring where it could have been condescending. “Proud corazón” (music by Germaine Franco, lyrics by Adrian Molina, performed by Anthony Gonzales, who gives voice to Miguel, and Antonio Sol) is the final song and its title encapsulates what, to me, makes the movie culturally powerful: nobody bothers to translate “corazón”, or the rest of the Spanish lyrics of the song, into English. If you want to understand it, and the Spanish that the characters use in the film, learn Spanish. After all, this is the way millions of people speak English in the U.S. In the age of Trump the twitterer, this is what I call utopia.

The Tyranny of Love

Written by Andrés Buesa. Posted in CCSBlog

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 The Lobster (Yorgos Lanthimos, 2015)

As the official selections of many international festivals prove, Greece is one of those countries (together with Romania, South Korea or Iran) that are opening new territories in 21st century cinema. Among the filmmakers linked to the so-called New Greek Cinema, Yorgos Lanthimos is with no doubt the most successful and fascinating of them. In his short career, this 44-year-old director has established himself as one of the most talented auteurs of recent European cinema, and even if his movies do not fit in any genre, his first film in the United States, The Lobster (2015), cannot be considered but a love story.

Yes, a love story. Critics may have focused on its satirical sense of humour, or its links with other dystopian films, but the most interesting aspect of the movie is its discourse on love and relationships. Even if Lanthimos picks up in The Lobster some of the elements that were there in his previous films Dogtooth (2009) and Alps (2011)--the uncanny feeling produced by settings and characters that seem at once familiar and unfamiliar, recognizable yet strange--the focus of his new feature film is extremely human: love. Its discourse is articulated in two parts corresponding with the two halves in which the film is divided.

In the first one, David (Collin Farrell) is forced to enter into a sort of dystopian facility in which singles have 45 days to find a partner, or they’ll be transformed into an animal. The activities and rules in this institution are oriented to that goal: from gala dinners (at midday) in which they can dance with other residents to the prohibition of masturbation, all for the guests to find their ideal partner. This unrealistic atmosphere, though, conveys a very relevant critique: the pressure to find a partner and get married in our contemporary world. As in the film’s dystopian society singles are not allowed to exist, this clearly reflects our tendency to consider coupledom as the norm and other options as deviant. Even the obsession with compatibility (the two members of the couple have to have something in common, i.e. frequent noise bleeding, having no feelings or being short-sighted) reminds of Tinder’s concept of the match.

In the middle of the film, however, David rebels against this single-minded conception of the couple and escapes from the hotel. He gets to the woods, where he finds a group of people apparently living in more freedom. Only one rule stands in this new society: couples are not allowed. While the first half of the movie is devoted to the critique of the couple as the organising element of society, the second examines the opposite view: when being single becomes a must and, as a result, also very dangerous. The rules of the woods restrict David’s freedom as much as the rules in the hotel. The film, therefore, is very critical with the way society confronts love and relationships, either from one extreme or the other. There is, though, a space for hope since David and the unnamed character played by Rachel Weisz fall in love and manage to escape together.

What makes The Lobster superior to the director´s previous films is precisely its ability to use his bizarre style of filmmaking in order to construct a powerful discourse on love. The film is as uncomfortable as it is tender, as difficult to explain as necessary to see. 

The Birth of a Border

Written by Celestino Deleyto. Posted in CCSBlog

(Denis Villeneuve, 2016)

In Arrival some very sophisticated aliens (almost) land in twelve, apparently random, locations around the world. We only become familiar with one of their gigantic ships but assume that the rest behave in a similar way. In Montana, the army soon builds a perimeter around the spot to protect the country from potential invaders and only a very select group of people is allowed to cross it. A very basic, unsophisticated variety of border construction. The aliens, for their part, open an entrance into their craft, inviting earthlings in to establish communication. Once in, however, the human characters find an invisible barrier that they are not allowed to cross. No exceptions are made until much later on in the narrative. Around that barrier, precarious communication is established. Since they are so intellectual superior it is difficult to understand why the aliens do not seem to understand English (or any of the other earth languages in the other locations). The US army sensibly hires a brilliant linguist and a supposedly brilliant scientist to try and decipher the aliens’ language. A border has been created and it almost looks like a membrane, extremely difficult to cross but supple enough to encourage the desire to communicate. Gradually, our heroine the linguist begins to understand and to ask questions. The answers, however, are open to interpretation: some read them as a threat of invasion, others as an invitation to establish friendly contact. Very soon the dynamic around the border becomes familiar: one driven by linguistic and cultural barriers, fear and curiosity about the other, and of course geopolitical agendas. Interestingly, the US authorities, maybe still Obama-like, are more open to explore exchange. The Chinese and the Russians are more aggressive and belligerent. Around the ambiguous membrane, ideology is immediately constructed. For a fantasy film, Arrival is pretty accurate about the functioning of borders in a global world.

Interesting Fluff (The Intern, Nancy Meyers, 2015)

Written by Celestino Deleyto. Posted in CCSBlog

THE INTERN Movie PosterA bright young man has a business idea and creates a start-up company to sell clothes online. After 18 months the company has become very successful and has grown from twenty-five to over two hundred employees, so big that the creator and owner is beginning to doubt his own ability to run it. He has a wife and a little daughter. When the company started the protagonist's wife was also working and was, in fact, more successful professionally than her husband, but, then decided to give up her career to stay at home and look after the child. Our hero is very good at what he does, works very hard and spends all day at work. He sees his daughter very little, but still makes the effort to take her to school in the morning whenever he can and keep up with her school, friends, parties, etc. After all, this is a Hollywood film. He eats lunch and dinner at work, sleeps very little and is permanently exhausted, but he is young and gets a rush from his success. He loves his job. By the time he gets home in the evening his wife is asleep. The marriage undergoes a relatively little crisis in the course of the film, but what is important is that the man follows and fulfills his dream.

So far nothing unusual. We’ve seen this story (minus the start-up and online business) many times before. This comes close to a description of the plot of The Intern, except for the small detail that I got the genders wrong: The protagonist is not a man but a woman, the spouse is a man, and the daughter is still the daughter. Jules (Anne Hathaway) smiles her way through her extra-busy life, quietly overcomes the obstacles in her way, ignores the gossip of the other mothers at school, and, at the end, remains as powerful, as driven, and as successful at the head of ‘About the Fit,” her online company. Her husband Matt (Anders Holm), whose turn has come to play The Little Mermaid’s Ariel at school, finds it hard to adapt but understands Jules dreams and roots for her. In terms of star power, the names and charisma of the actors playing the couple leave us in no doubt as to whom this film is about.

As happened with Meyers’ previous films, The Intern will surely be criticized for its candy-floss soft center. True, Brooklyn looks gorgeous; the interior decoration is striking; the characters are mostly happy, even when they cry; there are a few funerals that are equally sunny; and conflicts, such as they are, are effortlessly and painlessly resolved. True, Robert de Niro’s avuncular angel in the shape of intern Ben teaches Jules a thing or two about life and keeps her on course through her doubts. In his opinions and advice he is more of a feminist than Jules herself, an ideological  stubbornness that he combines with a very traditional gentleman-like behavior at all times. But, as our main point of identification, especially for the usual constituency of Meyers’ movies, he contributes in no small measure to the construction of a gender dynamics that is still far from generalized in the real world, and yet in this film appears as perfectly normal. The fluff may still be there but it quietly helps reframe the expectations, the reversal of conventions appearing natural and reasonable.

In one of the film’s funniest moments, Jules drinks one too many tequilas with her male interns and expresses her concerns that, in striving for women’s equality, society has forgotten about men, the result being grown children who are still mostly playing video games on the computer, have never learned to be adults, and have lost step with progress.  She is drunk, and, in his quiet polite way, Ben also helps the young men around him grow up (if only by explaining to them that a shirt is not necessarily a blouse andwhat the point of handkerchiefs is). Hathaway’s Jules, on the other hand, is very feminine, very heterosexual, and very unthreatening. She may not be every feminist's dream, but a smart, powerful, professionally successful woman, who doesn't give up her job in the last reel for the sake of her husband and her family is not half bad as a role model. Maybe still fluff, but quite empowering fluff in its own way.

Journey to Madrid (Truman, Cesc Gay ,2015)

Written by Celestino Deleyto. Posted in CCSBlog

Truman 984199420 largeIn their remarkable body of films, director Cesc Gay and co-scriptwriter Tomàs Aragay, have become the foremost chroniclers of a certain type of contemporary middle-class, urban Catalan society. These are quiet movies in which the characters tend to say little and convey their feelings and even their place in society through their looks and expressions, often framed in close-up. The same actors tend to reappear from one film to the next, contributing to making the social world they describe immediately recognizable and consistent.

The atmosphere of many of their films is suffocating, whether they take place in the city (most of them) or in the mountains (Ficciò, 2006). For the latest venture, the filmmakers themselves seem to have had enough of the world they have created and have decided to travel to Madrid, where the action of Truman (2015) is set. Gay and Aragay are not the only ones to make the short but, in the present social and political climate, difficult journey: many in the cast, including Eduard Fernández, Ágata Roca and Alex Brendemühl among others, as well as most of their habitual crew have followed them. Truman’s Madrid is populated by Catalan characters. In a nice touch, Tomás (Javier Cámara) comes to visit his dying friend Julián (Ricardo Darín) and stays at the Hotel Catalonia during his visit. For all we know, even Truman, Julián’s beloved dog, is Catalan. In this, the movie is as realistic as its predecessors. Also in constructing a Madrid that is in many ways very similar to the Barcelona we have seen in previous movies. Small wonder, since the filmmakers are obviously attracted to the same type of urban spaces, and Madrid and Barcelona are the two foremost Spanish cities, with more things in common than not.

Not only that. Truman is, for the first time in their filmography (if we leave out Gay’s first feature film as director, Hotel Room, 1998), a co-production between Argentinian and Spanish companies. Argentinian star Ricardo Darín repeats from Una pistola en cada mano (2012) but this time he brings Argentinian money with him for the production. Of the three main characters, two are Argentinians living in Madrid, including Julián’s cousin Paula (Dolores Fonzi). Tomás travels to Madrid from his home in Montreal, and Julián’s son Nico (Oriol Pla) is studying in Amsterdam, where his father and Tomás go and visit him. This opening up of the spatial canvas doesn’t produce a drastic change in the story with respect to earlier films, among other reasons, because the actors’ performance is always central in Gay and Aragay’s films and in Truman as in the earlier ones, the actors carry with them their own histories and identities. As a result, the Madrid that we see in this movie is a quietly transnational city, with no sense of hardcore local identity, yet startingly similar to the Barcelona or earlier movies.

The transition from an apparently local to a transnational type of cinema is, therefore, very smooth and effective, and the seeming naturalness of Truman’s cosmopolitan encounters once again confirms the central position of Gay and Aragay as among the most important contemporary Spanish filmmakers, in spite of the so far limited commercial success of their movies, and also the decidedly transnational vocation of most of the best recent Spanish cinema. 

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