Subtitles don’t bite. Turn them on, if you need, and check out a superb satire from Mexican director Luis Estrada, The Perfect Dictatorship (La Dictadura Perfecta, 2014), streaming on Netflix. Prepare to laugh and squirm. In this uncomfortably relevant and sardonic tale, a dominant media outlet, TV MX, controls politicians by controlling public attention. As the story begins, the Mexican president, a client of the news network, commits an embarrassing gaffe. To distract people from his blunder, the news outlet digs up evidence of corruption on the part of a governor, and swamps the air waves. Now the governor is beholden to TV MX to improve his tarnished image, and soon a dramatic human interest story takes over the screens and minds of the viewers. The governor can step in as a hero.
Satirical critiques of media control and public illiteracy are not new. Think Network (1976), Wag the Dog (1997), and Idiocracy (2006). The Perfect Dictatorship crawls under our current skin by illustrating how easily people are consumed and influenced by television news. Even if we live without televisions in our homes, television news promulgates stories that pervade the airwaves, and social media helps to goose and spread alarm or smarm, whichever the case may be. This film perfectly mocks a dramatic style of reporting common today. And we get a view of some fringe areas in Mexico outside of elected government and media control. A few wild cards keep the plot exciting. Fair warning: this satire is not without violence. La Dictatura Perfecta was the top-grossing film in Mexico in 2014, and it won the Audience Award for Best Film at the 2015 Biarritz International Festival of Latin American Cinema that takes place annually in France.
Keep those subtitles on! While searching for contemporary Spanish films about Catalonia’s efforts to gain independence from Spain, I discovered the top-grossing Spanish film, a 2014 screwball comedy, Spanish Affair, that has a popular 2015 sequel, Spanish Affair 2. Both films poke fun at regional stereotypes and separatist movements. The films, streaming on Netflix, are good entertainment but also instructional to outsiders, providing a comic entry into Spain’s range of regional and cultural differences.
In Spanish Affair (in Spanish the title is Ocho Apellidos Vascos (Eight Basque Surnames)), a young man, Rafa, falls for Amaia from the Basque country. The film opens in Seville, a beautiful city in the Andalusian region of Spain. Flamenco dancing, colorful tilework, bullfighting, and warm weather characterize Andalusia, but to some outside the region, the negative stereotype of laziness prevails. Rafa determines to travel north to the Basque country to find Amaia, a woman he met while she was in Seville trying to soothe her broken heart, having been left at the altar. His friends fear for his life. To them, he is traveling into enemy territory, where terrorism rules. As Rafa’s bus heads north, the landscape shifts from rolling hills of orange groves to rough, coastal fishing villages.
Rafa masquerades as a Basque to fit in and fool Amaia’s father, Koldo, a proud Basque. Koldo would never accept an Andalusian son-in-law. Rafa has to change his name, accent, vocabulary, hair style, and politics. Amaia teaches Rafa to replace his frequent phrase “my love” with the earthy “shit.” The kooky plot twists, verbal zingers, slapstick moves, and adorable characters keep the film buoyant and fun.
Most cultural references can be figured out from context, but it will help to know that migas is a standard dish that has regional variants, Euskera is a very old language spoken in the Basque region, kale borraka means “street fighting” and refers to an armed Basque separatist group, and a lauburu is an ancient symbol of the Basque region.
Director Emilio Martínez-Lázaro clearly touched a lot of Spanish nerves in this 98-minute romp, and, fortunately, audiences come away laughing. The romantic comedy genre, with its built-in security that love will prevail, leaves room to tease out all sorts of touchy subjects without hurting anyone’s feelings too deeply.
In Spanish Affair 2 (Ocho Apellidos Catalanes, “Eight Catalonian Surnames”) the former antagonists Rafa and Koldo team up. Koldo tells Rafa that, now that he knows him, “You’re not Andalusian to me. You’re Rafa.” Together they travel to Barcelona to stop Amaia’s marriage to a Catalan. The two bond over their shared prejudice. When they have to change trains in Madrid, Rafa carries Koldo because “no Basque can set foot in Madrid.”
The film’s rendition of Barcelona reads like the Brooklyn hipster stereotype, complete with man buns. We see a multi-ethnic, prosperous, cosmopolitan society. The wealthy, aged aunt of the groom thinks that Catalonia is already independent of Spain, thanks to her nephew who uses her money to stage a world that supports her illusion. (Side note: the 2003 German film Good Bye, Lenin! uses this gambit to perfection as a devoted son keeps his ailing mother from learning that the Berlin Wall has fallen.) Spanish Affair 2 may be more silly and flimsy than the first, but still good for getting a comic glance into contemporary Spanish conflicts.
If you have access to HBO, take a look at Yo Soy Un Político (I am a Politician), a 2016 comedy from Puerto Rico by writer and director Javier Colón Ríos. The opening montage begins on Inauguration Day, 1981, when the central character, Carlito, is a baby. Then it dashes through the inaugurations of five Puerto Rican governors, using clips from their real speeches. We see Carlito’s development along the way until 2016, when he is thirty-five and recently released from prison. Carlito wants a job with “minimum responsibilities and a huge income.” His prison guru tells him, “Then politics is the way for you,” and Carlito, a most unlikely candidate, launches his campaign for governor. Yo Soy Un Político is a quick, light satire and an enlightening peek into Puerto Rican politics. And even today, knowing the terrible aftermath of Hurricane Maria, the film’s uplifting ending gives hope.