‘Notes for a Heist Movie’ (‘Apuntes para una Pelicula de Atracos’): Film Review

Courtesy of Avalon Productions
Flako and Leon Siminiani in 'Notes for a Heist Movie.'
Robbers are people, too.

The professional and private lives of a Spanish heist specialist are held up to scrutiny in Spaniard Leon Siminiani’s second documentary.

Although Leon Siminiani is probably not the kind of director to attempt a Spanish remake of Ocean’s Eleven, Notes for a Heist Movie does make for a distinctive and engaging contribution to the genre. Part video diary, part movie homage, part heist thriller and part other stuff, Heist, which screened at Seville's recent European Film Festival, is a very Spanish item that nonetheless sheds plenty of light on a murky, sensationalistic world of universal interest.

Like Siminiani's well-received debut Map, Heist is a sharp, smart, idiosyncratic movie that’s curiously about its own making — and once you’ve gotten past its moments of self-indulgence, it confirms the director as an indie cult waiting to happen. Reception to date has been warm, and Heist deserves to be shown at further fests beyond the Spanish-speaking circuit that is its natural home.

From an early age, Siminiani tells us, he’s wanted to make a heist movie. So his interest is naturally provoked when, in 2013, the thwarting of a Madrid bank heist is all over the media. The gang leader, Flako, is arrested; Siminiani, largely against the advice of his pregnant girlfriend, Ainhoa, decides to contact the jailed robber.

A correspondence between the director and the self-appointed “Robin Hood of Vallecas” (a working-class barrio in the south of Madrid) ensues, ending up with a prison visit, the realization that Flako is writing a book and the start of the friendship that forms the film’s backbone. Typically of Siminiani’s nervy, self-doubting approach, he’s concerned about the ethics of making a movie about a man who has caused so much trauma among his victims.

Flako, a slightly tubby, tracksuit-wearing, down-to-earth kind of guy who must be capable of a nastiness the film determinedly sidesteps, describes himself as a worker more than a criminal. After all, he's only following in the footsteps of his father: To Flako, robbing banks is like a family business. (As a kid, Flako recalls, he found a stash of money at home and asked his father whether he’d robbed a bank, which his father in fact had done that day.) Flako wonders, and it’s a fair question, why the legal system pursues small fry like him while the big fish in the waters of Spanish corruption swim free.

His vanity is piqued by the idea that someone might want to make a movie about him. Soon director and subject are out in the streets, and indeed crawling round under them as Flako shares his expert knowledge of Madrid’s underground tunnels — there are nearly 2,800 miles of them — and his tricks of the trade. For the record, if anyone has plans to rob a bank, then know that it has to have a basement; that it should be on a street corner; and that there should be a manhole cover right next to your getaway car. (This film truly stands at the fiction/reality interface.)

The film was shot during prison breaks. Realizing that nobody must be able to see his face in the final film, Siminiani makes a smooth, white and slightly creepy mask for Flako to wear. This lends further surrealism to already absurd sequences, such as the one where Flako re-enacts his arrest.

As in Map, Siminiani folds in large chunks of autobiography, more specifically the story of Ainhoa’s pregnancy and their first experience of parenthood. Siminiani and Ainhoa are an engaging couple, and there are several nicely intimate scenes. The stories of director and robber are thus linked by the idea of fatherhood and its responsibilities — both men have chosen “alternative” professions, and both are insecure about the image their children will have of them as they grow up. As in Map, Siminiani has no qualms about baring his soul onscreen, but this time he shares the soul-baring load, and some of the film’s strongest sequences are in the conversations when the men open up to one another. As the story goes on, it’s the insecure family life of Flako (and his wife, Mariela) that comes to the fore as Siminiani’s fades into the background.

More subject to accusations of self-indulgence than the new film is, Map was focused mostly on Siminiani and the long-suffering Ainhoa themselves. This time, Flako is the main interest — or rather the relationship between Flako and the director. They're very different figures: The former is working class and pragmatic, the latter middle-class and intellectual. But both have their winsome insecurities, and both have a stake in wanting the project to work out. The film is all the better for it.

Given its subject matter, it’s unlikely that Heist could ever make for dull viewing, but just in case, Siminiani and editor Cristobal Fernandez work hard to keep up the pace. Footage of old heists, both real and fictional (mainly vintage footage from Spanish '50s and '60s movies), is spliced in, with multiple press cuttings and attractive digital graphics, all of which confirm that Siminiani, as he states at the start, is indeed a bit of a heist nerd. It is this air of fastidious obsessiveness that lends his film much of its charm.

Production companies: Avalon PC, Tusitala Producciones Cinematograficas, Pandora Cinema
Cast: Leon Siminiani, El Flako
Director-screenwriter: Leon Siminiani
Producers: Stefan Schmitz, Maria Zamora
Directors of photography: Javier Barbero, Giuseppe Truppi
Editor: Cristobal Fernandez
Sales: Avalon
Venue: Seville European Film Festival

85 minutes