Aces (Os fenomenos): Malaga Review

This honest, warm-hearted and well-played working people’s drama extends the honorable tradition of Ken Loach, but its virtues are themselves more workmanlike than truly inspiring.

A gritty Galician drama about a heroic single mother struggling to get her life back together, set against the backdrop of Spain’s economic crisis.

It could be because Spanish producers feel that Spanish people don’t want to watch films about Spanish financial woes, but considering the impact the crisis has had (and is having) on so many lives, few films have tackled it. Aces is one of the best – a solidly built, well-played ensemble piece about the human consequences, set in Galicia in northern Spain at the time that the property market went from boom to bust.

In the film’s favor are its winning characters, led by a Lola Duenas at the top of her game, and the fact that it oozes compassion; against it, a slightly schematic feel and a lack of detail which is the result of its broad canvas. At home, Aces’ subject matter could mean that it undeservedly finds itself in a hole, but this is one of those unglamorous but quality projects that deserves to follow Alejandro Marzoa’s not dissimilar Here’s the Deal out onto the Spanish language festival circuit.

Duenas is familiar to non-Spanish audiences for her roles in several Pedro Almodovar films and in Alejandro Amenabar’s Oscar-winning The Sea Inside). Here, to prophase John Lennon, she successfully shows that a working class heroine is someone to be. As Nenete, she wakes up one morning in her camper van home to find that she’s been left holding the baby by the gruff, troubled Lobo (the similarly high-profile Luis Tosar, who disappears before the opening credits are over but who returns later). Nenete is forced to travel back to her birthplace in Galicia, where she’s given a chilly welcome by her mother.

Through the efforts of Nina (Ledicia Sola), she finds work at a building site as part of a work team calling itself “The Aces”, hence the film’s title, led by Benitez (Antonio Duran, “Morris”). Initially the butt of the team’s sexist humor (and defiantly choosing to change into her work clothes in front of them), Nenete slowly comes to bond with the boys, as well as becoming the object of the affections of two men: Curtis, an overgrown boy of a man winningly played by Xose A. Tourinan, and a former boyfriend, fisherman Furon (Juan C. Vellido), in a beautifully relaxed performance that leaves him, however, out at the dramatic margins.

The team are working on a building which is illegal, the result of the corruption embodied in the smiling but sinister Barreiro (Alfonso Agra), who turns up to pay the workers in person according to how hard they’ve worked. Trying to ensure a better future for herself and her son, Nenete puts down a payment of the pilot homes and commits to buying it, at which point the dream starts to unravel.

The script is informed by the gently joshing, humorous take towards his characters of say Ken Loach, and the closest thing to a Loach movie that Spain has yet produced, Fernando de Leon’s Mondays in the Sun. Played by the cream of Galician acting talent, the team actually plays onscreen like a group of guys who’ve been working together for years, and as with Loach, the only downside is that they all may be a little to nice to be believable. The strongest moments, warm and witty, are the ensemble scenes, including an evening meal, set in awkward circumstances, which is laugh aloud funny.

The Aces include a range of types, among them the quiet, sensitive Josue (Xulio Abonjo), the troubled foreman Balboa (Miguel de Lira), caught uncomfortably between the bosses and the workers, and the tragic, aging Avelino (Gonzalo Uriarte), who cannot envisage a life without work. The script carefully makes space for each of their back stories, with varying degrees of dramatic success, but there's rarely a false note. Zarauza has carefully guarded against the pitfalls of sentimentality which on paper such a script as this is prone to: the audience waits in vain for the swelling sound of the strings.

Duenas (one of the cast’s few non-Galicians) has a reputation for playing tough but tender types, and reprises that turn here, but at greater length than ever before. Nenete’s physical vulnerability is an intriguing counterpoint to the emotional – and physical – pressures on her, and interestingly the script never once has her losing it; the key to Nenete, a double outsider as an unemployed woman who’s heroically almost able to fight all the way back, is an immensely appealing, dignified stoicism.

D.P. Alberto Diaz Bertixti infuses the film with a grayish, dark hue that’s largely down to the lowering light of northern Spain. For that authentic touch, the film mixes Spanish and Galician languages.

Production: ZircoZine, Maruxina Film Company

Cast: Lola Duenas, Luis Tosar, Juan C. Vellido, Ledicia Sola, Antonio Duran, “Morris”, Miguel de Lira, Xose A. Tourinan, Xulio Abonjo, Alfonso Agra, Gonzalo Uriarte

Director: Alfonso Zarauza

Screenwriters: Zarauza, Jaione Camborda

Executive producers: Farruco Castroman, Ruben Zarauza

Director of photography: Alberto Diaz Bertixti

Production designer: Pablo Atienza

Editor: Juan Carlos Arroyo

Music: Piti Sanz, Anxo Grana

Sound: David Machado

Sales: ZircoZine

No rating, 99 minutes