Spanish Affair (Ocho apellidos vascos): Film Review

Pedro Alborenoz
Spain’s north and south amusingly collide in this exuberantly played but outdated fish-out-of-water screwball comedy from vet Emilio Martinez-Lazaro.

The year’s biggest Spanish domestic hit, seen by over two million people in the fortnight following its release.

Spanish Affair has struck a chord with Spanish audiences and is already a must-see, on its way to becoming the second biggest Spanish-made box-office hit of all time behind Juan Antonio Bayona’s The Impossible. As a comedy, this tale of a young southerner seeking to win the heart of a Basque girl is indeed a very Spanish affair. Thick with local references, it’s hard to see that interest will extend too far beyond Spain, or at least Spanish-speaking territories, though there may be remake possibilities if some canny scriptwriter can be found to translate it wholesale into another culture. Inevitably, a follow-up is already on the cards.

To make any sense of it at all, a primer: people from Seville are stereotypically thought to be outgoing, quick-witted, sociable and wear hair gel, and none of the above applies to the grumpy, defensive and fiercely nationalistic Basques.

STORY: 'Spanish Affair' Breaks Box Office Records in Spain

Though the idea of such a culture clash is non-too original, it’s carried off with real brio by all concerned. Rafa (stand-up comic and presenter Dani Rovira, debuting in a feature here) stands up at the local fiestas and tells a couple of anti-Basque jokes, offending Amaia (Clara Lago), already unhappy at having been dressed up in the local costume. She gets drunk, and stays at his house, but the next morning she has headed back north and Rafa, smitten, decides to follow her. (“It’s not her fault she’s Basque,” he explains to his horror-stricken friends.)

Most of the rest of the film plays out in the Basque country, where Amaia’s engagement has just been called off. Her fisherman father, fervently nationalistic Koldo (the reliably wonderful Karra Elejalde, inexplicably underused in Spanish film) is returning for the wedding, and so as not to disappoint him, Amaia pleads with Rafa to pretend to be Basque for three days, which is a bit like asking Dolly Parton to play a Scotsman. To get the girl, Rafa rebaptizes himself, and Merche (popular local thesp Carmen Machi, playing to type) is roped in to play his mother.

Plotwise, things proceed as expected – the basic trick has been to transfer screwball motifs into a particularly Spanish context. But there are a lot of laughs along the way as Rafa stumbles from one awkward situation to the next: having to recite his eight Basque surnames -- hence the film's Spanish title -- to Koldo as evidence that he’s 100% Basque; speaking Basque, which is famously one of the world’s most difficult languages; and getting arrested as a Basque nationalist.

It's a peculiar thing indeed to see a cinema full of Spaniards chuckling along at jokes about Basque nationalism. After all, just ten years ago, Basque terrorists were falsely accused of the Madrid bombings, an event which brought down a government. But maybe the film's success might just be Spain wanting to leave all that behind, and it's to the script's credit that the issue is dealt with so dexterously.

“Why speak in a language that Spaniards don’t understand?” wonders Rafa to a group of Basque followers he has inadvertently picked up in a nod to Life of Brian. In a sequence guaranteed to raise eyebrows in certain sectors of Basque society, he then proceeds to chant anti-Spanish slogans in Spanish.

Wisely, director Martinez-Lazaro (whose The Wrong Side of the Bed did big business in 2002) has preferred to be workmanlike rather than showy, letting the script and dialogue work of Diego San Jose and Borja Cobeaga (a successful comedy director in his own right) create the sparks. Spanish Affair, despite the odd moment of gentle subversion, has been designed to keep everyone happy: prejudiced Spaniards are happy to find their bigotries indulged by the incessant stream of gags, which is basically stereotype-based, while those of a more ironic turn of mind find humor in watching the struggles of the hapless but engagingly undaunted Rafa to play his role.

That said, there are a few moments of more tempered, subtle humor, mostly involving Elejalde, as well as a couple of beautifully sustained comic sequences, including a hunt for a cell phone ringing with the "wrong" tune which is wittily stretched to a full five minutes. But with half an hour to go, the high strike rate of gags plummets as things resolve into standard wedding day shenanigans.

Performances are capable and energetic from all players, including from a supporting cast which includes the two Andalucian motor mouths from the 2012 cult hit The World is Ours, Alfonso Sanchez and Alberto Lopez, as Rafa’s sidekicks. Aerial shots of the verdant landcapes of the Basque country could do wonders for the regional tourist board: appropriately and predictably, the score is regionally shaded.

Production: LaZona films, Kowalski Films, Snow Films, Telecinco Cinema
Cast: Clara Lago, Dani Rovira, Carmen Machi, Karra Elejalde, Alfonso Sanchez, Alberto Lopez, Aitor Mazo
Director: Emilio Martinez-Lazaro
Screenwriters: Borja Cobeaga, Diego San Jose
Producers: Ghislain Barrois, Alvaro Augustin, Gonzalo Salazar-Simpson
Executive producers: Javier Ugarte, David Naranjo, Koldo Zuazua
Director of photography: Gonzalo F. Berridi
Production designer: Juan Botella
Editor: Ángel Hernandez Zoido
Music: Fernando Velazquez
Wardrobe: Lala Huete
Sound: Antonio Rodríguez “Marmol”
Sales: Film Factory
No rating, 98 minutes