By Judi Jordan
You always know where you stand with Carlos Bardem. The tall, athletic, Madrid-based author, actor, screenwriter, ex-boxer, and yes, big brother of Javier–says what he means, and means what he says. Opinionated, clear-headed, enthusiastic, and articulate, Bardem enjoys the incendiary art of unguarded discourse. Visiting LA from Madrid to present his new film, Scorpion in Love, Carlos Bardem won audiences’ additional respect as he shared from the heart about the dire state of the Spanish film business.
He was preaching to the choir. Spain’s international non-profit film ‘engine’ EGEDA, hosted the much-anticipated 19th annual “Recent Spanish Cinema” at the Egyptian Theater and it is here that a hand-picked selection of Spain’stop films are screened to an international Spanish-speaking audience, and full houses of film aficionados, who care about politics and the state of the industry. Carlos Bardem had dual roles in Scorpion in Love–he penned the novel the film is based on and movingly played a major role as an alcoholic boxing coach who mentors a troubled young man, Julian [Alex Gonzalez] torn between his allegiance to a neo-Nazi group and his love for a mixed-race, immigrant woman. Carlos’ brother, Javier, took on the role of the fanatic Nazi leader, Solis, with chilling conviction.
The boxing scenes are powerful as Carlos’ character imparts the secret of successful boxers to an angry Julian–perfecting the use of physical aggression without the blinding element of hate. As Julian’s soul releases bitterness, his heart embraces love and friendship with the people he has been trying to despise. In a Hollywood movie theater these lessons seem romanticized, but the situation closer to home are anything but—as Spanish tempers rage over the state of the economy, the film business is taking a beating from Spain’s government. That is what Carlos really came to share.
Hanging out with Bardem is far from boring, and possibly in Madrid—even a bit dangerous, but he would not have it any other way. He got a late start in acting but is making up for lost time—his credits include some of Spain’s biggest hits, including the critically acclaimed Cell 211, The Outcome, Goya’s Ghosts, Americano, and La Zona, which garnered him a Spanish Actor’s Union Award for Male Newcomer. Often cast as the villain, “It’s this face”, he grins. “I’d love to play more comedies—but I have this face—so I tend to get to play the bad guys.”
In real life, Bardem is warm and engaging with an easy smile and open, intuitive personality. He reads American authors like Phillip Roth, Steinbeck, and writes thoughtful books that he hopes will one day be published in English. A loving older brother, he is in un-jealous awe of Javier’s talent.“Javier’s so good—my favorite film of his is Before Night Falls. The brothers take workshops to keep their skills fresh. Carlos marvels–“To be in a workshop with Javier is to experience plentitude–to see an actor in possession of all of his skills—he goes all out!”
Carlos considers himself a writer first. “I started acting really late—before that I was writing novels, I’d love to get them published outside of Spain. In this case, I wrote the screenplay to “Scorpion in Love”–so I’m totally responsible for the failure or success”, he laughs.“ I write because I have this need to express myself.” Expressing himself is what Carlos does best.
In his elegant black suit on the red carpet, it seems a stretch to imagine Carlos Bardem as an angry protester but photos do not lie; in the Spanish press he can be seen in a sweaty tee shirt, holding a huge banner in the street beside a bushy-bearded Javier, looking for all the world like revolutionaries. No mistake, when it comes to the dire state of the film business in his native Spain, he is on fire. And no wonder. In 2012, Spain’s government slapped a 21 percent [!] tax on movie tickets, and in shocked response, Carlos and Javier led street protests, followed by a sea of artists and activists protesting the hike. Predictably, the government did not react well–as recently as October 2013, in a move calculated to infuriate, Spain’s Finance Minister Cristóbal Montoro attempted to pin the blame of the decline in ticket sales to the lack of quality of Spanish cinema. Needless to say this did not sit well with the Bardem boys. Montoro’s comment: “The crisis enveloping the Spanish film industry had nothing to do with the VAT hike on cinema tickets or the cuts imposed by the Popular Party government, but with the quality of the films.” Carlos shakes his head in disbelief. “Our minister of taxes says in public that Spanish films are no good.” “What minister of a country knocks his own cinema? Who does that?”
It does seem a bit odd.
Further pressed to defend the crushing 12.4 percent cut to the Film Guarantee Fund, the body that distributes film production subsidies, Montoro cited the crisis in the industry due to a decline in cinemagoers over the past 10 years. His comments to the SER radio network, were directly undermined by actual figures provided by the Spanish government, which report that the Spanish film industry actually grew at the box office over the last 10 years — in 2002 it generated 85.4 million Euros paid by 19 million filmgoers and in 2012 it took in 119.9 million paid by 18.2 million people. Carlos and his Scorpion producer, Alvaro Longoria expressed their concern at the Egyptian Theater screening. Carlos: “They are reducing funds and investment; we’re in a nowhere place. Producers don’t know where to get finance.”
The illogical nature of the discourse has launched personal infighting among the government itself. Socialist spokesperson for culture in Congress, José Andrés Torres Mora, opened the window further to fan the flames against Montoro. “There has been a 58-percent fall in the budget of the ICAA [state film institute] in three years. Cristóbal Montoro is carrying out his revenge against cinema with the Culture Ministry chiefs remaining passive. Cristóbal Montoro is acting in an ideological way against culture in general and cinema in particular.”
It does seem strange that at a time when Spanish cinema has a greater chance than ever to explode with her top stars attaining worldwide recognition, Oscars, and adulation, a minister would reveal a personal vendetta against the arts. Minister Montoro found himself up against the ‘first family’ of Spanish actors. Carlos is freshly agitated just thinking about it. “It was a big scandal; they are trying to strangle us. But we keep a light of hope. We have the talent. I am into politics—I am not an actor first—I am a citizen. I’m really concerned about the false charges –it is designed to make the rich, richer and the rest, the poorer—to suffer.”
One thing is for sure, they will not silence the Bardems. The power of protest came to them in their m other’s milk. In fact, Carlos’ feisty mother, the celebrated actor Pilar, was recently seen in the front lines protesting the drilling for oil in the Canary Islands. Carlos laughs proudly. “Our mother is amazing.”
Are politics in the future for Carlos Bardem? He reflects. “I am an actor; this is a job I love, and I work outside of Spain—in Mexico, Latin America…and I write. I am doing fine. But I can’t just stand around while all of this is happening. They hate the people to be in control but we are never going to be in silence.” Apparently this film industry backlash is connected to something much bigger. Bardem views this as outright suppression, in the long tradition of Franco-style dictatorship. In serpentine fashion, it is connected to activism from the artistic community in the form of protests against government involvement in Iraq –where, according to Bardem “Ninety percent of the Spanish population who are against the country’s involvement—are feeling the push back from the government, who are locking the coffers.” Carlos acknowledges;“That freedom of speech has cost the Spanish art community millions of Euros in support.”Carlos pauses, growing somber as he tightens his jaw. “Remember– this was the only country where the bad guy won the war. The fascist dictator died in his bed, an old man. Franco. They want to destroy us so you need to speak out.”