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August 6th, 2003 BECKY OHLSEN | Movie Reviews & Stories
 

TEARS AND SMILES

Javier Bardem stars in the melancholy comedy Mondays in the Sun

     
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If Office Space is at one end of the spectrum of work-related comedies, Mondays in the Sun is at the opposite. A slow-moving, melancholy film, it's nevertheless suffused with warmth and wry humor. The wordless opening montage of police and workers clashing in a shipyard strike is set to pointedly cheerful music, turning the flying fists and billy clubs and rows of angry, shouting men into an unlikely sort of Marxist ballet. That dissonance, between grim reality and the human ability to find poetry and humor within it, shapes the film and is perfectly embodied in its star, Spanish actor Javier Bardem.

With his bedroom eyes, boxer's nose and impish smile, Bardem has the kind of face whose every twitch is worth a thousand words. And he brings an intense physicality to the screen, in roles as varied as the studly young underwear model in Jam-n, Jam-n, the paralyzed cop in Live Flesh and the gay Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas in Before Night Falls. In Mondays, he's beefed up and bearded as Santa, one of four laid-off shipyard workers in a small Spanish port town--men who have the dubious pleasure of spending the work week lounging in the sun because they can't find jobs. (It should go over pretty well in Portland.)

"In this country there are millions of people unemployed," Bardem, 34, says by phone from L.A. "Maybe there's people who need to see this movie. In Spain it was seen by a lot of unemployed people, and they loved it and they felt stronger--maybe only for a few minutes, but they felt stronger."

Directed and co-written by Fernando Le-n de Aranda, Mondays consists of a series of episodes in the lives of Santa and his equally listless pals: José (Luis Tosar), who seethes with shame and rage at the fact that his wife is now the family's breadwinner; Lino (José çngel Egido), who starts dyeing his hair for job interviews to compete against the younger, tech-savvy crowd; and Amador (Celso Bugallo), the saddest case, who basically sits at the bar and silently pickles himself.

The bar is owned by another former co-worker, who bought it with his severance pay--something Santa didn't get, because he chose to protest the company's shutdown rather than take the package that was offered and leave quietly. Now he has to go to a series of court hearings because he refuses to pay for a streetlight he broke during the union protest. Occasionally another ex-colleague, who nabbed a security job at the local soccer stadium (and whom they resent accordingly), will take the guys up to see a game; sitting on the roof, though, they can only see half the field, so they have to wait for the crowd's reaction to find out if one team scored. It's a film full of just-beneath-the-surface rage camouflaged by the kind of humor that comes across as slightly desperate.

"Humor, for these guys, for human beings, is maybe our only way to get through," Bardem says. "Otherwise life is too fucking serious; we don't know how to deal with it. We'd better learn how to laugh about ourselves."

At the same time, much of the film is utterly tragic, and it carries a serious political message. "I think everything is political," Bardem says. "When we say we're not political, we're already making a statement. But what's important is that we portray human beings as they are, real people, because otherwise it's boring. I don't give a damn about seeing people flying over buildings, when I know that while I'm watching the movie there are millions of people dying out there."

There's no tidy, uplifting conclusion to Mondays in the Sun, but that lack of closure serves to emphasize the realism of the film. "We don't give any happy end," Bardem says, "but we do give a hopeful end, in the sense of...if the people [who are supposed to] give the answers, like the government, don't give them, you have to find the answers inside yourself."

For his part, Bardem doesn't seem to be interested in easy answers. Though he's been in dozens of films, he has yet to become a huge star, mostly because he's chosen roles that are important to him personally. Next up he'll appear in Out to Sea, a film by Alejandro Amen‡bar (The Others). "It's about many things," he says, "life and death, euthanasia." He won international recognition for his brilliant portrayal of Cuban poet Arenas in Before Night Falls, but, he says, "the recognition fell apart after two months. More people know my job now, and that's good, but there hasn't been any huge change. I'm still doing what I want to do instead of doing what they tell me to do. And that's a big thing."

 
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