Review: Penélope Cruz and Antonio Banderas light up the playful satire ‘Official Competition’

A woman lying on the floor, seen from above, with her curly brown hair spread out.
Penélope Cruz stars in “Official Competition.”
(Manolo Pavon / IFC Films)

A sharp send-up of film culture — on both large and small screens — Argentine director duo Mariano Cohn and Gastón Duprat’s latest feature, “Official Competition,” is a coy satire that makes welcome use of biting meta-commentary and self-reflexive critique.

In the film’s opening moments, we are introduced to successful entrepreneur Humberto Suárez (José Luis Gómez), who, reflecting on his contributions on the eve of his 80th birthday, hopes to leave behind a legacy of cultural prestige rather than just millions in business ventures and hollow philanthropic causes. He is casual and nonspecific in his goals, in the way that only the well-off can afford to be, and ultimately settles on producing a film with the best talent, director and source material that money can buy. While he is unable to parse actual markers of quality himself, his wealth affords him the means to materialize the kind of cultural capital he so desires.

Humberto spends a small fortune acquiring the rights to “Rivalry,” a Nobel Prize-winning book that he has never read, and hires celebrated arthouse auteur Lola Cuevas (Penélope Cruz), a director whose films he has never watched. Rounding out this curated cast of players are diametrically opposed actors Félix Rivero (Antonio Banderas) and Iván Torres (Oscar Martínez). Rivero is a blockbuster movie star who can’t be bothered to show up on time, demands a macrobiotic, gluten-free diet on set, and has a rotation of young beautiful women with whom he spends his time. Torres, on the other hand, is a studied thespian who eschews fame in favor of a supposedly more authentic craft — he emphasizes the integrity and grueling nature of self-serious performance over more mainstream accolades and visibility.


While the rehearsal process sets the stage for these differences to shift from self-aggrandizing philosophical discussions into full-on conflict, “Official Competition” is more concerned with a deeper examination of the role of ego and power dynamics in artmaking. Contentious though their relationship may be, Rivero and Torres suffer from a similarly pompous sense of self-importance: While Rivero lambasts any critique of his acting by pointing to his numerous awards, Torres eschews the privileges he is offered not out of true humility but rather out of a performative modesty and integrity. While Rivero practices his charismatic acceptance speeches, Torres prepares his own austere rejection speeches.

Within this web too are director Cuevas’ machinations. She is eccentric in the truest sense of the word, unwavering and intense in her direction. She leads the men in a series of urgent (and, for us, humorous) exercises designed to humble them, to break them down into their most malleable parts — a sort of psychological dismantling for which both men are clearly overdue. Cuevas too moves with her ego firmly in hand, but the way that she is able to manipulate the men is spellbinding. She hones in on their egoistic needs with catlike reflexes, learning the routes and paths through which both may be influenced for her own purposes. In this, Cruz is stunning to watch; equally enigmatic and expressive, desirable and absurd, her rendering of an iridescent Lola is what propels much of “Official Competition,” even through a slight narrative slackening in the final 30 minutes.

In their intimate and devilishly delightful study of character and relations, Cohn and Duprat also make perceptive use of their visual space. Depth of field, framing and composition are all utilized with the same discriminating nature that marks their script and direction overall, accenting the many sparse (be it moral or spatial) realities we are witness to with an elegance that betrays the film’s almost effortless staging. Indeed, there is an easy beauty to their work in “Official Competition” as it intricately moves through caricature and parody — and the shared façades of both — toward an entanglement of identities.

'Official Competition'

(In Spanish with English subtitles)

Rating: R, for language and some nudity

Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes

Playing: Starts June 17 in limited release