Laughs, tension at Malaga

Diverse festival slate draws big crowds

MALAGA -- Strong ticket sales and vibrant word-of-mouth marked the 11th annual Malaga Spanish Film Festival as it hit its half-way mark Tuesday.

The event has become the country's main showcase for homegrown talent and commands a robust following from locals that fill theaters and congregate outside hotels eager to glimpse the mix of young Spanish sex symbols and veteran actors on hand.

In the span of the first four days, the event awarded lifetime achievement prizes to seasoned actress Concha Velasco and casting director Luis San Narciso. San Narciso's presence is particularly symbolic given the fact that he found the first TV roles for many of the best-known faces now on the big screen at the festival.

Javier Camara, Lola Duenas and Fernando Tejero, who co-star in Nacho Garcia Velilla's directorial debut, "Chef's Selection," represent a wave of television stars who have made the crossover to film successfully in Spain. "Chef's" had audiences belly-laughing over the difficulties of a homosexual chef's efforts to mesh his paternity with his love life.

The laughter was a welcome change from the weekend's three other competition titles, which revolved around fear and tension.

Manuel Gutierrez's "We're All Invited" received a standing ovation at the opening gala for his portrayal of a professor's bravery in the face of death threats from Basque terrorist group ETA. The subject, deeply controversial in Spain, is rarely tackled in the nation's cinema.

Also buzzed about was Javier Gutierrez's "3 Days," produced by Antonio Banderas' Green Moon and Seville-based Maestranza. The film, which combines an apocalyptic background with a tale of revenge centering on small children, looks likely to fit into the growing trend of Spanish horror pics that travel well beyond Spanish borders.

Jose Corbacho and Juan Cruz, meanwhile -- back in Malaga three years after receiving the top prize for "Tapas" -- presented "Cowards," a tough film focusing on bullying within a school.

Malaga runs through April 12 in the Mediterranean coastal town in southern Spain.