‘The Realm’ (‘El Reino’): Film Review

Courtesy of San Sebastian International Film Festival
Antonio de la Torre in 'The Realm.'

Playing in San Sebastian following its TIFF appearance, Rodrigo Sorogoyen’s follow-up to 'May God Forgive Us' is a fast-moving, quick-minded takedown of Spanish political corruption.

Whether the corruption in Spanish politics is a question of a few rotten apples or is tantamount to organized crime is part of an ongoing national debate, and The Realm firmly and excitingly, if unsubtly, comes down in favor of the latter option. Part thriller, part moral skewering and sadly part realistic portrayal, Realm is guided by a terrific performance from the reliable Antonio de la Torre at the center of some fine ensemble work. It bowls along at an increasingly urgent, expertly handled pace, sacrificing nuance for impact in a way that feels entirely at one with the crude, morally unshaded world its protagonists have created.

Though it's as Spanish as chorizo, Realm's concerns, at a time of great political distrust, are universal. It’s likely to be automatically dismissed as fodder for Spanish-speaking and a couple of Euro territories, but this may be rather like suggesting that Goodfellas (no comparison of course intended) could only appeal to Italian-Americans. Realm is a fine example of concerned, contemporary cinema that also happens to be a lot of fun to watch; it deserves to be seen by as many people as possible.

We open with an ambitious politico, regional vice-secretary Manuel Lopez Vidal (Antonio de la Torre), on a beach, talking on a cellphone. A tracking shot from behind leads us into a busy restaurant where Manuel’s peers, a scuzzy gang whose seafood (and a great deal besides) are being paid for by the taxpayer’s dollar, are behaving like a group of loud, annoying, slightly feral schoolboys; they will continue to do so, long having outgrown possible redemption. This back-and-forth between the quiet and reflective and the noisy determines the film’s structure.

It is restaurants like this, and their bathrooms, where the political fate of the region (and by implication, the nation) is being decided, with power distributed among men (and women) whose only qualification for the job is the size of their cojones. The dialogue is rapid-fire, the character names escape us at first, and the mood in general is that of a high-speed blur of wheeler-dealing where nobody, including those involved, seems quite sure of where they fit in. The political old school, where corruption is the norm, is represented by regional president Frias (vet Jose Maria Pou), who chooses Manuel as his successor; the new school is embodied by Rodrigo Alvarado (Francisco Reyes), brought in to try and clean things up from the capital, Madrid.

The first arrest, for money laundering, land rezoning and a long etcetera of which they are all guilty, generates unease and the paper shredder is dusted off. It becomes clear that everyone’s worried about one particular scandal breaking, one whose real-world parallel will be clear to Spanish viewers. But as far as Manuel is concerned, the excrement will only really hit the ventilator when a secretly taped conversation of him makes its way onto the national media. Suddenly shunned by his party and former cronies, he decides to take revenge — a process via which the script will have to work hard not to make Manuel, who is no better than anyone else, into a hero.

It doesn’t quite manage it: The final half-hour of Realm may be very exciting indeed, involving high-speed japes on unlit backroads and an on-TV showdown with journalist Amaia (Barbara Lennie), but it's implausible, too, since Manuel seems to have suddenly acquired a previously hidden touch of the stuntman. But the viewer is happy not to ask awkward questions, given the pleasure of being driven through a clever, twisting plot, successfully extended to more than two hours, where the violence is all psychological.

Direct though they are in their storytelling, Sorogoyan’s films have the virtue of confidently going with an idea if he likes it, running with an unexpected, oblique scene if it feels right. One such scene features Manuel and his aging lawyer Fernando (Paco Revilla) visiting a colleague’s house to try and unearth some incriminating papers. When they encounter a drugs-and-drink-fueled party held by the owner’s daughter, the scene becomes a face-off between different generational attitudes toward corruption as well as a piece of tense filmmaking that adds a couple of extra layers to Manuel’s character.

In a similar standout vein, mention should be made also of Realm’s final scene, whose penultimate speech drew a round of applause at the film’s San Sebastian screening — only to have the bravura final speech cleverly undermine that applause.

There’s a surreal, absurd side to all this, of course, that the script does well to countenance: How it is possible that political lives can hang in the balance based on the contents of a pen drive that may or may not be hidden in a shoe? One scene, shot on a balcony supposedly beyond the range of recording devices, allows Cabrera (Luis Zahera) to use comic exaggeration to hilarious effect as on seeing the game’s up, he completely loses it. This is a rare opportunity for a group of middle-aged Spanish actors, often secondaries, to show their chops.

Realm consolidates de la Torre’s reputation as an actor whose presence is practically a quality control stamp on any project he puts his name to. Playing a hatred-haunted, revenge-driven character in a state of controlled delirium, much as he did in 2016’s The Fury of a Patient Man, de la Torre is able to keep Manuel’s weakness (aka humanity) visible throughout, particularly via his clearly very real affection for his wife Ines (Monica Lopez) and daughter Nati (Maria de Nati). In the finest tradition of mafiosos, these guys are, quite sincerely and despite their moral idiocy, family men at heart.

Production values are high, accidentally lending the aura of glamour to fundamentally sordid lives. Visually, the film’s crispness and coastal light often feel interestingly at odds with the shadiness of the action. Much of the tension is the product of sharp scripting and Alberto del Campo’s editing, so it’s a shame that Olivier Arson’s throbbing, rather obvious electropop soundtrack is ladled on so heavily, reliably striking up whenever the viewer’s pulse needs to be set racing.

Production companies: Tornasol, Trianera, Atresmedia Cine, Le Pacte, Mondez & Cia, Bowfinger
Cast: Antonio De La Torre, Monica Lopez, Jose Maria Pou, Nacho Fresneda, Ana Wagener, Barbara Lennie, Luis Zahera
Director: Rodrigo Sorogoyen
Screenwriters: Isabel Pena, Rodrigo Sorogoyen
Producers: Gerardo Herrero, Mikel Lejarza, Mercedes Gamero
Director of photography: Alex de Pablo
Art director: Miguel Angel Rebollo
Costume designer: Paola Torres
Editor: Alberto del Campo
Composer: Olivier Arson
Casting director: Arantxa Velez
Sales: Latido Films

131 minutes