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Los Lunes al sol (Mondays in the Sun)

(2002) *** R
113 min. Lions Gate. Directors: Fernando Leon de Aranoa, Fernando León de Aranoa. Cast: Javier Bardem, Luis Tosar, Jose Angel Egido (II), Nieve De Medina, Enrique Villen.

The poster for Los Lunes al sol (Mondays in the Sun) proclaims, "This film is not based on a real story. It is based on thousands." Inspired by a major layoff at the boatyards of Gijón which led to the rioting shown under the opening credits, writer-director Fernando León de Aranoa transplants the story to contemporary Vigo, in northwest Spain, where the toll of unemployment rings as credibly today. That the filmmakers score the riot sequence to tender guitar and accordion music suggests the unconventional style of this low-key film, one both heartbreaking and funny.

The film's most valuable player is Javier Bardem, the central figure in a group of middle-aged friends laid-off from a shipyard. As Santa, Bardem emerges with a proud strut that simultaneously announces the primary theme (pride, particularly of the masculine variety) and establishes a magnetic character. As played by the heavy-lidded (and, here, paunchy and bearded) Bardem, Santa is a quick-witted, cavalier player hiding raw emotion under humor, lustiness, and sheer force of will.

Santa's friends include the highly motivated Lino (José Ángel Egido), whose string of failed job interviews leads him to embarrassing competitive ends; sad-sack José (Luis Tosar), whose lost breadwinning role and drifting wife Ana (Nieve de Medina) wind him ever tighter; and severely alcoholic Amador (Celso Bugallo), a melancholy cloud of a man regarded helplessly by his friends. Theirs is an achingly awkward existence, stealing snacks in grocery stores and football matches from obstructed-view seats on nearby rooftops.

Though the story is melancholy at heart, de Aranoa and co-writer Ignacio del Moral persistently coax tragedy and droll comedy to cross each other. One typical sequence finds Santa reduced to sharing a babysitting commission while a teenage girl runs off to see her boyfriend. Swiftly breaking every rule, Santa invites his friends to sit out smoking stogies and drinking the family liquor. He also finds himself unwittingly caught up in the little boy's bedtime story--"The Ant and the Grasshopper"--sparking a priceless reaction to the story's perceived politics.

Though the film's effect is partly cumulative, relentlessly presenting what people do to practically and emotionally get along, Mondays in the Sun begins to wear in its steady repetition; the audience can easily stay ahead of the thin story and the "If one falls, we all fall" conceit. Eventually, metaphors yield to explicit speeches and de Aranoa wears out his welcome. Nevertheless, this humane film--more about masculinity than hypocrisy, more about friendship than failure--scrounges its own indelible emotional impact.

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