October 17, 2011

Film: La Comunidad (2000)

If you were to use the Oscars as a guide, you'd think all Spanish cinema was either Pedro Almodóvar or movies about the Spanish Civil War. (This year Spain decided that the Civil War trumps Almodóvar, electing Pa negre (2010) instead of La piel que habito (2011) as its candidate for the 2012 Academy Awards category of Best Foreign Language Film.) In the spirit of broadening Americans' horizons, I'm therefore going to put a moratorium on movies that have to do with either.

Which brings us to what is easily my favorite Spanish film of all time, La Comunidad (2000) by the genius Spanish movie director, Álex de la Iglesia. The story centers around a middle-aged real estate agent, Julia, who decides to stay the night in one of the apartments that she is selling, to escape from her bad luck and troubles with her negative and mediocre husband. The previous owner of the apartment was a recluse who died there of old age, and Julia quickly realizes the apartment holds a secret. Unfortunately for her, the neighbors seem to know it, and are intent on either preventing her from discovering it or escaping from the building alive with it.

Álex de la Iglesia, director
and President of the Spanish
Academy of Cinema, 2009-2011
The movie holds together so well because of the wide assortment of well-known Spanish actors, including Carmen Maura (a regular lead in Almodóvar films), Sancho Gracia, Kiti Manver, Terele Pávez, and especially Enrique Villén (regular collaborator with de la Iglesia), who has capitalized on his characteristically odd look by converting it into a Spanish cult classic. Each of them imbues their character with a special idiosyncratic obsession or "manía," resulting in comedic ensemble scenes without compare. Black humor turns to suspense and then to complete pandemonium as Julia faces off against the entire community of neighbors as she tries to finally turn her luck around.

Spanish actor and writer Enrique Villén
What makes La comunidad priceless is how it plays on one of the more fundamental social institutions in Spain: "la comunidad," which literally translates to "community" but is better understood as the "neighborhood association" for apartment buildings. Bear in mind that the vast majority of Spaniards live in apartments or flats, not in stand alone houses. At least once a year all the neighbors hold a "reunión de los vecinos" (neighbors' meeting) with the hired building manager to go over the shared building expenses, any pending or needed renovation projects, or other matters which require collective agreement. Being a homeowner myself, and having attended these meetings, they are a bastion of classic Spanish idiosyncrasies… chatty neighbors, retired people with nothing better to do than chat away and make sure the meeting drags on and on; people speaking over each other, often simply to repeat what the previous person just said; and so on. And this at what was a fairly cordial meeting. Heated disputes and confrontations (or more commonly subtle but poignant slights and insinuations) among members of la comunidad are the stuff of legends and ripe material for a comedy.

Illustration of a classic meeting of the neighbors in the entryway next to the mailboxes. In times of crisis,
la comunidad de vecinos shares the woe, and this blog gives tips on how associations can cut communal costs.

In this sense, La comunidad is a satire on Spanish apartment associations much as The Stepford Wives (2004) spoofs American suburban neighborhood associations. Álex de la Iglesia does a wonderful job of transforming the nosy neighbor, an archetype we've all experienced, into something much more sinister, and that's where all the fun begins.

In the U.S. the American Dream is set in suburbia and its protagonist the housewife. In Spain
the typical "casa" (home) is a flat or apartment and its homemaker most likely a working woman.


Happy Homemaker UK said...

I am new to your wonderful blog :) This movie sounds like a great one - thank you the spotlight :)

An Expat in Spain said...

Hello Happy Homemaker UK! I'm happy to have a fellow expat in Europe visiting the blog. I hope you enjoy the movie as much as I did.

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