Losing hope and finding connections

Times Staff Writer

If “Mondays in the Sun” is known at all in this country, it’s as the film that bested Pedro Almodovar’s “Talk to Her” on its home ground, not once but several times.

It was “Mondays,” not “Talk,” that was Spain’s entry in this year’s best foreign-language film Oscar race. And it was “Mondays,” not “Talk,” that dominated the Goyas, that country’s equivalent to the Academy Awards, winning in five categories including best actor, best director and best film. Not bad for a little picture going against one of world cinema’s biggest names.

Now that “Mondays in the Sun” is here, we can see what a remarkable film it is and understand that its triumphs were no fluke. While its real-world concerns and socially conscious roots make it the complete opposite of the Almodovar film, it’s also a triumph of quiet realism, a piece of sophisticated, subtle filmmaking that is both thoughtful and thought-provoking.


Written and directed by Fernando Leon de Aranoa, whose previous work has not been widely seen in the United States, “Mondays” joins the films of French director Laurent Cantet (“Time Out,” “Human Resources”) and others in focusing on the importance of work in the human equation. Lack of meaningful activity casts a pall over every aspect of the lives of this film’s characters; they are bereft of anything they can take pride in, and disintegration sets in.

If that sounds overbearingly somber, it shouldn’t, because neither these people nor their film have lost a feeling for humor. A gentle sense of absurdity -- an appreciation of laughter even in the bleakest situations -- is one quality that characterizes “Mondays,” and its most implacable character, mesmerizingly played by Javier Bardem, is also its funniest.

Despite its elegiac style, “Mondays” begins with an episode of labor violence, as battles between police and striking workers play out under the opening credits. A lockout and dismissal of 200 employees at a shipyard in an unnamed city on Spain’s northern coast have led to a conflict that the rank and file don’t have a chance of winning.

The bulk of “Mondays” examines the lull three years after that storm, gradually taking us into the lives of half a dozen men who lost their jobs in that conflict. It reveals the coping mechanisms of the disenfranchised and the dispossessed, people who usually figure only as statistics on the evening news.

The men gather at a bar owned by Rico, who bought it with a severance payment. He and his 15-year-old daughter, Nata, have allowed it to become a refuge for his friends. Here they can drink free and trade jokes, stories and disappointments.

A sample of their pointed humor: Russians meet a few years after the fall of the Soviet Union, and one says, “We always knew that everything they told us about communism was a lie, but everything they told us about capitalism turns out to be true.”

Though each man’s situation gets its due, three stories are most prominent. Sad-eyed Jose (Goya winner Luis Tosar) is distraught at not being the wage earner in his marriage, especially since it means his attractive wife Ana (Nieve de Medina) has to work the grueling night shift at a fish processing plant.

Though Jose has stopped looking for work, the much older Lino (Goya winner Jose Angel Egido) refuses to give up. He goes on so many interviews for positions he can’t possibly get that someone proposes a toast to “They might call us.”

That someone would have to be Santa (Bardem), the group’s charismatic first- among-equals. A powerfully built man with a piercing gaze and almost military bearing, Santa is an implacable enemy of the company he feels betrayed him. But being a brutal realist hasn’t hurt his sense of humor, or his willingness to flirt with women like the supermarket employee he meets handing out samples of cheese.

Even those impressed with Bardem’s work in the recent “The Dancer Upstairs” or his Oscar-nominated role in “Before Night Falls” will be unprepared for how different -- yet irresistible -- he can be as a hefty character who works himself into a fury about the supposedly deceptive message of a children’s book about the grasshopper and the ant. Without the galvanizing presence of this world-class actor, who does nothing but improve, “Mondays” would not have nearly the impact it does.

“Mondays in the Sun” is too smart a film, and the issues it deals with too complex, to come to an easy resolution. The best thing about this bittersweet story is how simply and delicately its scenes are presented, how it makes its points without chest thumping or special pleading.

It paints a moving picture of these men and their camaraderie, a unity that has to sustain them because everything else they have gets taken away.


‘Mondays in the Sun’

MPAA rating: R, for language.

Times guidelines: Adult subject matter.

Javier Bardem ... Santa

Luis Tosar ... Jose

Jose Angel Egido ... Lino

Nieve de Medina ... Ana

Released by Lions Gate Films. Director Fernando Leon de Aranoa. Producer Elias Querejeta. Screenplay Fernando Leon de Aranoa. Cinematographer Alfredo Mayo. Editor Nacho Ruiz Capillas. Costumes Maiki Marin. Music Lucio Godoy. Art director Julio Esteban. Running time: 1 hour, 53 minutes.

In limited release.