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A fable about the collision of two Spanish worlds locked in a mutual misunderstanding, Selfie is perceptive and thought-provoking fare that fails to deliver fully on its striking premise. Small in scale but big in ambition, Victor Garcia Leon’s study of the wanderings of a rich kid fallen on hard times is part comedy, part X-ray of post-crisis Spain and part moral yarn about empathy. But despite a committed performance by debuting actor Santiago Alveru, the film falters over its final stretch.
That said, Selfie remains a bold, watchable and thoroughly contemporary item that deserves festival exposure as an example of a kind of Spanish cinema that’s both experimental and accessible.
Bosco (Alveru) has the typical life of a wealthy Madrid family offspring, living in a huge house in the outskirts, going out with flighty, attractive Paula (Clara Alvarado) and studying for the requisite MBA. But early on, his politico father is arrested and jailed on multiple corruption charges (something that’s been happening a lot recently in real-world Spain) and suddenly his world falls apart. The family’s possessions are seized; Paula will soon leave Bosco; and he’s asked to drop his course of study. In other words, when the money goes down, everything else goes down with it — except, inevitably and comically, Bosco’s sense of social superiority.
Having stayed the night at the home of Claudia, his former house cleaner, Bosco is obliged to leave his social bubble and ends up wandering around Madrid’s vibrant, buzzing lower-class areas. For him it’s a trip to an unknown and slightly scary world, but one where the majority of people of course live.
He falls in with Macarena (Macarena Sanz, also making her debut), a blind, kind-hearted and slightly too-innocent teacher of developmentally disabled people, with whom he enters into a relationship while her colleague Ramon (Javier Carraminana) — the political opposite of Bosco, but also pretty idiotic in his own way — looks on uneasily. Macarena finds Bosco a job working for her social organization, and he suddenly finds himself in a world where people look out for others rather than for themselves, which baffles him.
The film’s title is explained by the fact that it plays out like an extended selfie, with an unknown camera operator following Bosco around everywhere he goes — including real-life political rallies for Spain’s center-right Partido Popular and left-wing Podemos parties, themselves representative of the country’s ideological split.
It’s a technique that enables Garcia Leon to blend the fictional and the real, for example in one surreal scene where Bosco briefly meets Esperanza Aguirre, the former mayor of Madrid (possibly unaware she’s being captured in this satirical context). But it’s also a format that could have given the film more depth by allowing for more private, intimate moments of reflection by Bosco on his situation, which never happens, despite the potential in a number of scenes.
Partly this is due to the character’s problematic conception. At the start of the film, Bosco is a happy idiot, with a winsome smile and an open manner that are really engaging. As things go on and the humiliations pile up — perhaps most tellingly when he finds his mother Cristina (Isabel Garcia Lorca) and asks her for money, which she inexplicably refuses to give him — Bosco does becomes less happy. But he remains an idiot, one seemingly incapable of empathy or of learning in any way that would have given him depth and created important emotional connections.
For that reason, in the second half, it feels as if Selfie has already said everything it has to say, and that Bosco has become a mere punching-bag. (The problem is not with Alveru, who’s terrific, but with the character.)
It’s almost as though Garcia Leon is scared of generating too much sympathy for this rich dolt. It may be the film’s point that Bosco is a victim, too, one whose education and background have made him incapable of learning from his new circumstances. And that’s fine — but it’s a decision that ultimately hobbles this interesting character and his interesting film. On a separate note, lenser Eva Diaz and her camera do a terrific job of capturing the essence of Madrid life at its different social levels.
Production companies: Gonita, II Acto, Apache Films
Cast: Santiago Alveru, Macarena Sanz, Pepe Ocio, Alicia Rubio
Director-screenwriter: Victor Garcia Leon
Producers: Jaime Gona, Enrique Lopez-Lavigne, Victor Garcia Leon
Director of photography: Eva Diaz
Music: Christian Tosat
Editors: Buster Franco, David Mantecon
Casting: Florencia Ines Gonzaez
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