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Witching and Bitching (Las brujas de Zugarramurdi): San Sebastian Review

Witching and Bitching still - H 2013

The Bottom Line

A baggy monster of a movie that seeks to pummel its audience into comic submission, and mostly succeeds.

Venue

San Sebastian Film Festival (non-competing; also in Toronto festival)

Director

Alex de la Iglesia

Prolific, high-profile Spanish director Alex de la Iglesia returns to the inspired anything-goes madness of his earlier films, but with a bigger budget.

Alex de la Iglesia has experimented with various genres down the years, but the shamelessly crowd-pleasing Witching and Bitching is a return to what he does best -- pure mayhem. One of the characters compares it all to being in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, and that sounds about right. All the hallmarks of the director’s groundbreaking The Day of the Beast (1995) are back on display here -- high energy, unsubtle and tasteless but often hilarious satire, and an ability to transplant the wild comic book imagery of his imagination onto the screen, now armed with a battery of new technology. The noisy appeal this yarn of a bunch of hapless robbers who end up out of their depth in a witches' coven is infectious, and has translated into healthy pre-sales offshore.

One of the reasons why Spaniards are so fond of de la Iglesia is the way he transforms their familiar surroundings into the stuff of cinema. The Puerta del Sol in the center of Madrid is full of human statues. Jose (teen magnet Hugo Silva) posing as a body-painted Jesus, has decided to rob a well-known cash for gold store; he is fed up of trying to pay alimony to his wife Silvia (Macarena Gomez), and is accompanied by his young son Sergio (Gabriel Delgado) because, as he explains, he only gets to see him on Tuesdays. Jose's sidekicks are hunky but dumb Tony (Mario Casas) and cab driver Manuel (Jaime Ordonez).

The heist goes wrong, and Sponge Bob among others is shot dead. As they race away in the cab, the gang discuss, in sub-Tarantino style, their fear and dislike of women in unreconstructed terms that some will say the film itself buys into -- though it's also true that the boys themselves are never presented as anything other than idiotic. Tellingly, Manuel willingly joins the gang, despite the risk, on realizing that they share his insecurities about women.

But despite all the male bonding, the boys will be no match for the witches. Pursued by Silvia and by cops Calvo and Pacheco (Pepon Nieto and Secun de la Rosa) - an amusing double act -- the gang ends up in a Basque village in the grip of a family of witches - Marichu (the mighty Terele Pavez, her daughter Graciana (Carmen Maura), both de la Iglesia veterans) and her granddaughter Eva (Carolina Bang), living in a Gothic castle of stupendous proportions. The stage is set for an unlikely romance between Eva and Jose, and not one but two massive set-piece showdowns where the frenetic forward thrust of the narrative becomes technically aces but seen-it-before spectacle.

As ever having fun with Spaniards' image of themselves, de la Iglesia pokes indulgent fun at Spanish incompetence, the Spanish family and Spanish sexism among other targets, though cameos - for example from Santiago Segura and Carlos Areces (from Pedro Almodovar's I'm so Excited!) as a couple of gossipy housewives - feel surplus. But just occasionally, the script shows a little touch of well-observed human comedy, as in a brief exchange between Jose and Sergio about his homework.

Otherwise, the performances are appropriately shouty and over the top, with some of the cast evidently having been chosen for their naturally comic book features. The gag strike rate is unusually high for a de la Iglesia film, though later on, when the visuals take over, the script seems to run out of energy and just turns silly in a film that could easily have been twenty minutes shorter.

But as witches fly about in a ceremony staged like a rock concert, and hundreds of extras are marshaled into action, it no longer seems to matter, with de la Iglesia still retaining one CGI trick up his sleeve for the final reel. His canniness at making use of available space, particularly in his use of jaw-dropping real caves suggests that Witching and Bitching is one movie that would have benefited from being shot in 3D.

The credits sequence at the start is a clumsy but amusing montage of witches down the ages. One of them is Myra Hindley, the British 60's serial killer. Another is Angela Merkel, the German chancellor who many Spaniards blame for the country's sorry economic plight.

Production: Enrique Cerezo PC
Cast: Hugo Silva, Mario Casa, Carolina Bang, Carmen Maura, Gabriel Delgado, Jaime Ordonez, Terele Pavez, Pepon Nieto, Secun de la Rosa, Macarena Gomez, Javier Botet, Enrique Villen, Santiago Segura, Carlos Areces
Director: Alex de la Iglesia
Screenwriters: de la Iglesia, Jorge Guerricaechevarria
Producer: Enrique Cerezo, Verane Frediani, Franck Ribiere
Director of photography: Kiko de la Rica
Production designer: Arturo Garcia (Biaffra), Jose Arrizabalaga (Arri)
Costume designer: Paco Delgado
Editor: Pablo Blanco
Music: Joan Valent
Sales: Film Factory Entertainment
No rating, 112 minutes