Film Review: The Queen of Spain

Set in Franco’s Spain, this self-referential film-within-a-film is painfully dated and unfunny, and its mishmash of genres is even more off-putting.
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Fernando Trueba’s The Queen of Spain, a sequel to his 1998 film The Girl of Your Dreams, is a true puzzler. Why was it made and for whom? Even if you grasp the film’s political-cultural-cinematic allusions (it’s not hard) and are familiar with its earlier iteration, the humor is, well, not humorous at all, just excruciatingly retro, and the drama that abruptly and unaccountably turns into scenery-chewing farce midstream is discombobulating. One other thing: Virtually every character, narrative element and theme self-consciously references tropes and clichés seen in other movies and/or movies about the industry.

Still, the film might have some small interest to those who wish to revisit a few of the quirky characters they’ve already “met” and get to know some new fun types (or allegedly so) who are introduced here.

To recap: The Girl of Your Dreams, set in Nazi Germany during the early 1930s, recounts the misadventures of a Spanish film troupe attempting to shoot a low-rent Andalusian musical while its director Blas Fontiveros (Antonio Resines) and his rising, nubile star Macarena Granada (Penélope Cruz) are having a fling as horrors transpire all around them, including the slated deportation of a Jewish extra to a concentration camp. In the end they save him. The Nazis are drawn as cartoonish grotesques, including Goebbels, who is hot to trot with Marcarena. The final moments pay homage to or rip off (depending on viewpoint) Casablanca.

Fast forward to 1956, the scene is Madrid and Franco is now welcoming American filmmakers into the country to shoot epics of his choosing. (Actually, in the wake of America lifting its embargo against Spain in the mid-’50s, such Hollywood blockbusters as El Cid and The Pride and the Passion, among many others, were shot in Spain.) To appease Franco—sardonic commentary is robust—The Spanish Queen (the name of film within the film) celebrates Queen Isabella, known as “The Catholic Queen,” a 15th-century royal who along with her husband Ferdinand ordered the conversion or exile of their Muslim and Jewish subjects during the Spanish Inquisition.

The American film troupe comprises out-of-work mogul Sam Spiegelman, a Sam Spiegel stand-in (Arturo Ripstein); blacklisted Communist screenwriter Jordan Berman (Mandy Patinkin), who’s cobbled together a script that’s incoherent; supernumeraries, grade B actors and Marcarena, who has grown into a superstar with sexuality to spare. Resembling Sophia Loren, she boasts an ever-present entourage, international acclaim and tabloid scuttlebutt in equal measure. Paparazzi abound. Hey, it’s the McCarthy era and The Golden Age of Hollywood.

The company also encompasses an eyepatched, semi-comatose old crock director John Scott (Clive Revill)—a John Ford-Howard Hughes amalgam—a gay leading man, deadpan and predatory (Cary Elwes), and such returnees as the aging alcoholic actress (Rosa Maria Sarda) and the primping, campy art director (Santiago Segura), among others.

Enter Blas. Living incognito for close to 20 years—thanks to his left-leaning sympathies—he comes out of hiding determined to be reconnected with Marcarena, the hitherto newbie who launched her career under his guidance (not unlike Cruz, who made it to the limelight in Trueba’s 1993 Oscar-winning Belle Époque). But Marcarena has now fallen in love with the hunky head grip, Leo (Chino Darín), and a torrid affair between the two begins.

Still, she has feelings of loyalty for Blas, who everyone assumed was dead, including his wife Ana (Ana Belén). When Blas resurfaces, Ana’s new husband, a Fascist sympathizer, informs the authorities that Blas is on hand and in short order he’s captured and sentenced to do hard manual labor on a state-sponsored project, none too subtly erecting a giant crucifix. The shoddy construction partially disintegrates and he is injured, thereby incapacitating him further.

Marcarena rallies the cast and crew, who collectively concoct a scheme to free Blas first by kidnapping him and then by smuggling him across the border to France. They’re all clad in 15th-century regalia, thus making the one-digit IQ authorities think they’re observing a scene from the movie instead of a rescue strategy (shades of Argo).

At this point, the film morphs into total buffoonery. The lack of cohesive tone and style is a big problem. So too are the pervasive homosexual jokes of yesteryear that are unfunny and don’t evoke a bit of nostalgia for a supposedly more innocent time. Likewise, McCarthyism, Franco’s Catholicism and the Golden Age of big-budget movie disasters—as seen through a satiric lens—have limited appeal today for most cinemagoers, short of (maybe) those mid-century-cinema fetishists.

It’s not that the subject is dull. A straightforward drama on the same topic could work quite well and initially this movie seems to be moving in that direction, but regrettably it’s soon straining very hard at being clever. “Wit” that alludes to contemporary events can wear thin quickly. When its barbs are targeted at stereotypes of another time and place, it raises the question: Why are we hearing this now? The screenplay and direction had better be spot-on.

The actors do the best they can with the fatuous material. Both Cruz and Resines are simpatico in their roles; playing the abandoned, disappointed and still angry ex-wife, Belén is excellent; so is Carlos Areces depicting Franco, who surfaces in the final scene to meet his adored Marcarena, with whom he is having a one-sided love affair. Not unlike Goebbels in Dreams, he is a pitiable clown.

The art direction is the film’s high point, especially in the opening scenes featuring a Zelig-like montage of the fictional characters in ersatz newsreels interwoven with archival footage of the era. Even the iris transitions between scenes—that some reviewers disliked—I find nicely done and not off-putting. If only the rest were handled as delicately.

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