Benicio del Toro Balkans war drama flies flag for Spain at Cannes

Tim Robbins and Olga Kurylenko also star in Spaniard Fernando León de Aranoa’s movie

Gregorio Belinchón
Fernando León de Aranoa (left) and Benicio del Toro in Cannes.
Fernando León de Aranoa (left) and Benicio del Toro in Cannes.GUILLAUME HORCAJUELO (EFE)

In a competition that seems ever-more reluctant to show cinema from Spain, Fernando León de Aranoa’s A Perfect Day marks the only feature with a Spanish connection to be screened at this year’s Cannes Festival.

The film was shown on Saturday as part of the Director’s Fortnight strand, which features a selection of works from major international directors. But you’ll hear little Spanish spoken in this new movie from the Spanish director of Mondays in the Sun and Princesses (just in a conversation between stars Benicio del Toro and Sergi López) – the drama marks his English-language debut.

I wanted to show the chaos, how reason is the first thing that you lose in a conflict” Filmmaker Fernando León de Aranoa

Set during the conflict in the Balkans, it concerns a group of aid workers attempting to remove a dead body from a well before it can contaminate the drinking water: a simple task that takes on Herculean dimensions in that area in 1995.

It’s a project León has been trying to get off the ground for years. Although Del Toro had not been first choice for the role of group security chief Mambrú, it’s hard to imagine anyone but the Puerto Rican star in the role. After he signed up, the rest of the pieces began to fall into place: Tim Robbins came on board as the wild logistics guy, Mélanie Thierry took on the role of the young newcomer, and Olga Kurylenko signed up as Del Toro’s ex-partner.

“I wanted to show the chaos, how reason is the first thing that you lose in a conflict,” the director explains. “I went to the Balkans for the first time in 1995. I filmed a lot of material that served as our guide. I later filmed a documentary in Uganda for Doctors Without Borders and they told me about the novel Dejarse llover by Paula Farias, the organization’s emergency coordinator. That’s where I found my departure point.”

The absurd turns that take place over the course of the day or so it takes the group to complete its task take their toll on its members. “Benicio has a very good description for it: the heroism comes from fixing problems with patches that sometimes don’t work.” That’s why the images reflect the feeling of “being immersed in a labyrinth.”

The film follows aid workers trying to remove a dead body from a well before it can contaminate it

“It’s willpower against frustration, and it doesn’t always win. There is confusion, incompetence, even a certain humor that I hope is clear [...] And a certain punk rock spirit,” something that is definitely hammered home on the film’s soundtrack.

Like in his previous works, León’s main characters are “like guinea pigs in a maze.” “Meanwhile, they do their work, talk about their relationships, rearranging their furniture at home, about banal things, because this is their day-to-day life. I wanted to show that.”

León chose the setting in the Balkans for a number of reasons. “I first thought about Africa, but I’ve got much more experience of that area of Europe and in the end there is a personal element to any film.”

What’s more, it’s likely that European viewers will identify better with the more familiar people and landscapes. “I show the hidden war that went on after peace was signed, the land-mines that serve as reminders of what happened, how you saw entire towns without any damage and then suddenly one or two houses without roofs, imploded from their living rooms. Their neighbors were blowing them up so their owners didn’t come back. It’s the logic of a conflict in which ethnicity and people were mixed. When it comes to causing damage we are unbeatable: man conniving in an animalistic way.”

León also has documentary about new Spanish party Podemos in the works

León also launched his next project in Cannes. A drama about Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, Escobar is set to pair Javier Bardem and real-life wife Penélope Cruz. It’s a film he has been working on for years and that has now been given the definitive go ahead by Luc Besson’s production company to start shooting at the end of this year.

“I can’t say much, the script is still to be finished but it is more a drama than a biopic about Pablo Escobar,” says the director, who also has a documentary about new Spanish party Podemos in the works. Bardem will star as the notorious drug boss, with Cruz playing Virginia Vallejo, the journalist with whom he had a relationship and whose book Amando a Pablo, odiando a Pablo forms the basis of the story.

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