Celebrating 25 Years of the Spanish Film Festival

The Spanish Film Festival returns and is celebrating its 25th year! This time, the festival will be heading to Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra, Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide and Byron Bay, bringing with it a selection of films from across Spanish-speaking cultures. With subdivisions of New Spanish Cinema and Cine Latino and a range of genres available, there will be something for everyone in the festival program this year.

The preview film for the 2023 Spanish Film Festival was Alberto Rodriguez’s Prison 77 (In Spanish, Modelo 77). Prison 77 is a prison drama film set in the late 70s that follows the fictional experiences of Manuel, a young accounting assistant recently jailed for embezzlement and awaiting trial, as he joins a group of prisoners demanding amnesty during the transition to democracy in Spain. During this time, many political prisoners jailed by the Francoist regime received amnesty from the new government, and other prisoners held in the jails believed they deserved the same for being imprisoned by a crooked government.

Manuel and his fellow agitators form the Prisoners Rights Association (PRA) and hold protests, riots, and demonstrations against the harsh and unjust treatment they receive from the prison guards. When all their efforts fail, Manuel and some of his fellow prisoners stage a prison break in Shawshank Redemption style, tunnelling out of the prison and leaving through the sewer system to begin a new life.

The two lead actors head up the film masterfully. Miguel Harran brings a quiet intensity to his role of Manuel and does a fantastic job of showing the highs and lows of Manuel’s journey. Harran is matched by Javier Gutierrez as Jose Pino, Manuel’s older cellmate. Gutierrez’s Pino provides a wonderful counterbalance to Manuel as he both challenges and helps him, and Gutierrez keeps up with Harran blow for blow, both delivering incredible performances.

The script was tightly written, with no spare dialogue. Rodriguez, and co-writer Rafael Cobos, avoid the trap of using dialogue to explain what is happening in the moment, and what the character is going through internally. Instead, they trust the actors to convey all of that with a look or a gesture. Pino’s monologue about change and pushing forward despite the odds comes at the end of the second act and inspires Manuel just as he is about to give up, which proves a particularly fantastic moment. At least for me, that monologue hit hard, providing a much-needed emotional beat amidst the many visceral beatings shown on screen.

As well as having faith in the cast to convey the story without dialogue, Rodriguez’s direction never feels like it’s talking down to the audience. Instead, we are allowed inside a turbulent time in Spain. The score of the film is of particular note. At times it enhances the action, drama, and tension. At others, it shocks the viewer out of their immersion in a Brechtian style. This was especially obvious during the time jumps.

The film has a 125-minute run time and is filled with a lot of violence that could have perhaps been implied rather than explicitly shown. In fact, the repeated beatings feel somewhat overdone, as the audience is already well aware of the cruelty and injustice the prisoners faced and continuing to explicitly show the violence felt more gratuitous than informative.

Prison 77 is a great film to kick off the 25-year anniversary of the Spanish Film Festival here in Australia. If all the films shown across the program this year are of the same quality, I wouldn’t miss it for the world.

The Spanish Film Festival runs through June and early July so please be sure to look up session times if you are anywhere near Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra, Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide and Byron Bay.

This review also appears in It’s On The House.

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