TIFF 2021: Official Competition Review

If you love movies, then you’ll love Official Competition. This delightful film-on-film satire has a ball while playing with the magic of cinema. It’s a farce made by people in the know for people in the know. And if the laughter rolling throughout the Princess of Wales Theatre during Official Competition’s TIFF screening was any indication, this is one movie where everyone is in on a joke. It’s a delightful comedy that pays homage to the power that cinema has to move us from one emotion to the next, suspend our disbelief, and transport us to another place. The magic of Official Competition happens not in a faraway land, but on a movie set. It’s proof that a sharp script and committed actors are the foundation for any great movie.

Cinephiles will inevitably relish the opportunity to crack some Easter eggs as they decode this farce by Argentine writer-directors Mariano Cohn and Gastón Duprat. Official Competition, for one, begins by suggesting that any clown with lots of cash can make a movie. A wealthy businessman (José Luis Gómez) spends his eightieth birthday worrying that he isn’t beloved by the masses. He debates opportunities to improve his public image—cutting ribbons, kissing babies—but they all seem like empty photo-ops. He therefore decides to make a movie and try his hand at producing. It won’t be just any movie, though. He wants the best talent that money can buy.


The Auteur and the Actors

The producer therefore lands the hottest director on the arthouse circuit, an eccentric lesbian named Lola Cuevas who boasts a Palme d’Or win and a Silver Lion to her name, making her the first woman ever to win such honours. (Jane Campion won her Lion at the end of this year’s Venice Film Festival in which Official Competition premiered.) Played by Penélope Cruz in a gigantic shock of unruly ginger curls, Lola is an artiste to her core. She’s no fool, either. Lola recognizes a chance to make a passion project carte blanche when the producer options a bestselling Pulitzer Prize winning novel for her to adapt, and admits he never read it. Whether Lola gives him an in-depth reading of the book or just reads him is never clear. But they’re united in the shared belief that this película will reinvigorate the cinemas.

Lola proves her chops as a director when she hires two actors with opposing work ethics to lead her film. Iván Torres (Oscar Martínez) is a respected veteran, teacher, and method actor. He’s an old-school type who creates backstories for his characters. Iván ensures that every emotion he emits comes from lived experience. He also detests praise and he gags at the idea of awards. To him, cinema is all about art and poetry.


Félix Rivero (Antonio Banderas), meanwhile, is an A-list heartthrob. Unlike Iván, Félix believes that an actor need not relate to his character. One must simply remember the lines and sell them with conviction. To Félix, acting is all about the validation that comes with putting one’s beautiful face before a crowd. Unlike the socialist Iván and the carefree Lola, Félix embraces awards, fame, and high-figured paychecks.


The Art of Bullsh*t

A clash of egos ensues as Lola harnesses the actors’ opposing forces. She subjects them to ridiculous pre-rehearsal exercises that challenge their willingness to let the other actor steal the show. A script read through, for example, tasks the actors with repeating lines over and over. Despite Lola’s direction, the lines all sound the same, and she approves. Filmmaking’s all bullshit, anyways.

But filmmaking also offers an enchanting opportunity to captivate cinephiles, even those who know how the sausage is made. In one exercise, Lola makes the men demonstrate their skills as Casanovas by making out with their younger co-star (the producer’s daughter) before a pornographic number of microphones that amplify each lip smack. Another exercise asks Iván and Félix to rehearse underneath a gigantic boulder suspended from a crane. They worry about getting squished, but Lola insists that it’s all a metaphor for the weight on their characters’ shoulders. She has a devilishly clever way of manipulating the actors to get what she wants.


¡Viva Cinéma!

Cruz commands Official Competition with a spirited performance as the eccentric auteur. She is obviously having a lot of fun both paying tribute to the directors who’ve helped her elicit her best work, while also skewering the difficult filmmakers whose egos overwhelmed their productions. Cruz is consistently underrated as a comedic actress, but Official Competition offers a part as lively, sexy, and vivaciously funny as her best work with Almodóvar.


Similarly, Cruz’s chemistry with Banderas and Martínez is electric. Banderas is a particularly good sport with a self-deprecating turn that allows him to own his title as one of the world’s sexiest men. Official Competition also lets him prove to his critics that one can be mucho caliente and an artist with depth.

Martínez, arguably recognizable to North American audiences than his superstar colleauges, gamely plays the straightman. Star status works in Official Competition’s favour as Iván’s humbleness ignites creative sparks while clashing with the glitz of Félix’s stock and the prestige of Lola’s pedigree. As the cameras prepare to roll, the film asks if the dream factory of Hollywood corrupts all beautiful things. The drama behind the scenes threatens to overwhelm Lola’s project, until fate collides and art, like the best of movies, imitates life.

With Official Competition, Cohn and Duprat deliver a laugh-a-minute satire rooted in the shared pleasure of moviegoing. The film is an escapist delight that asks audiences to reflect upon the power of cinema, but also to reflect upon the hard work that goes into each frame. Whether lured by auteur cinema or A-list stars, Official Competition offers something for everyone who is seduced the moment the house lights dim. It’s a delight to see a film pay tribute to the magic of cinema, while also contributing to it.


Official Competition screened at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival.

It opens in theatres soon.