'Negotiator' ('Negociador'): San Sebastian Review

Courtesy of San Sebastian Film Festival
Droll peek behind political headlines is elevated by strong, engaging performances

Veteran Ramon Barea stars in Oscar-nominated writer-director Borja Cobeaga's politically charged comedy, named Best Basque Film at the Spanish festival

Tricky intertwinings of the personal and the political enliven Negotiator (Negociador), the briskly amusing third feature by Basque writer-director Borja Cobeaga. At heart a fondly spiky character-study of a schlubby politico who becomes the Spanish government's unlikely intermediary in hush-hush talks with separatist group ETA, it's a cracking showcase for star Ramon Barea that treats dead-serious subject-matter with a persuasively light touch.

Named Best Basque Film at San Sebastian, the inescapably talky, indoorsy affair has the makings of a mid-range box-office success in Spain. Elsewhere, festivals should take a look, as the jaunty, even jocular tone and adroit characterization enable Cobeaga and co to transcend regional specifics.

Prospects at home will exponentially improve depending on how much distributors emphasize that Cobeaga co-wrote Emilo Martinez Lazaro's Spanish Affair (Ocho apellidos vascos), the culture-clash romantic comedy which since its release in spring has become the country's biggest ever home-grown hit. Chronicling the relationship between a guy from Andalusia in the far south-west and a gal from the Basque Country in the far north-east, Spanish Affair took as its backdrop the long-running conflict between Basque secessionists and the Madrid central government.

Over the decades this feud boiled over into violence and bloodshed on numerous occasions, with ETA claiming responsibility for what Madrid would label "atrocities" perpetrated by "terrorists". Such nuances of language are a close concern of Cobeaga's sharp, smart, economic screenplay ("a free version of what happened" in 2005), the bulk of which comprises meetings between Manu and his opposite number(s) in a fancy, discreet hotel just over the (Spanish) border in France. The fact that the hotel is named the 'de Funes' — a hat-tip to the legendary Spanish-French comedian Louis de Funes — is a tiny but telling detail which underlines Cobeaga's determination to find absurdity and human fallibility in situations which could easily be sketched in much more somber hues.

As it is, Negotiator finds considerable comic mileage both in the official sessions — where the easy-going Manu squares off against his tight-assed opposite number Jokin (Josean Bengotxea) under the eye of international mediators Sophie (Melina Matthews) and James (Jons Pappila) — and more informal meetings at breakfast and after-hours in the bar and their hotel-rooms, during which the duo edge towards a kind of co-operative friendship. But just as progress appears to be on the horizon, Jokin is replaced by his much tougher-talking superior Patxi - played by Carlos Areces with the kind of dourly wry insolence perfected by the late James Gandolfini.

Oscar-nominated for his 2005 short One Too Many, which also starred Barea, Cobeaga scored a financial and critical success with his feature-length debut Friend Zone (Pagafantas) in 2009 before suffering the dreaded sophomore stumble with Lovestorming (No controles) two years later. Negotiator sees him on confident form in terms of both writing and directing, with the three leads striking the appropriate flinty sparks and Jon D Dominguez's widescreen closing in with aptly claustrophobic effect when discussions shift from push to shove.

Carolina Martinez's editing shows witty flair, most obviously in an attention-grabbing pre-credit sequence that cuts back and forth at an allegro clip between sizzling meat in a frying-pan and Manu's face, before the abrupt appearance of the title-card. The tone is thus set for all that follows: the picture itself certainly has very little flab on its bones, the end-roller starting at the 74-minute mark. Indeed, this is a rare instance of a film which could have profitably added to its running-time, with nonchalantly seductive lady-of-the-night Fayna (Maria Cruickshank) particularly warranting a little more exposure.

Production companies: Sayaka Producciones
Cast: Ramon Barea, Josean Bengotxea, Carlos Areces, Melina Matthews, Jons Pappila, Maria Cruickshank
Director/Screenwriter: Borja Cobeaga
Producers: Nahikari Pina, Borja Cobeaga
Cinematographer: Jon D Dominguez
Production designer: Lierni Izaguirre   
Costume designer: Leire Orella
Editor: Carolina Martinez
Composer: Aranzazu Calleja
Casting: Ana Sainz-Trapaga, Patricia Alvarez de Miranda
Sales: Sayaka, Getxo, Spain

No Rating, 79 minutes