Not long ago, a co-worker asked me whom I considered to be the best actors working today. First I properly dismissed the question, as I've always believed different actors bring different qualities to their work, qualities that can't be reduced to something measurable for any kind of contest. Then I eagerly jumped into the game.
The names I threw out ranged from the obvious (Sean Penn, Meryl Streep) to lesser known (Mark Ruffalo, Sarah Polley); my criteria included regularly choosing interesting roles or projects (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Johnny Depp) or simply accumulating a consistently impressive body of work over a long, steady career (Jeff Bridges, Paul Newman).
One name that came to mind was Javier Bardem, perhaps surprisingly, as I have only seen him in a handful of films. But Bardem has that unique combination of charisma and great technical range that makes him a great movie star as well as a brilliant actor. He is as understated as he is versatile, rarely indulging in emotional fireworks yet able to hold the viewer's focus with quiet magnetism.
He is certainly not a household name in the U.S., although that may be slowly changing thanks to his Oscar-nominated performance in 2001's "Before Night Falls," an impressive turn in John Malkovich's underrated political thriller "The Dancer Upstairs," a scene-stealing cameo appearance in last summer's "Collateral," and rave reviews and awards buzz surrounding his work in the current release, "The Sea Inside." Born into a filmmaking family in his native Spain, he has had a prolific screen career there since his first feature in 1990, and the two Spanish language films featured in this week's column are among his best.
In Pedro Almodovar's "Live Flesh" (1997), Bardem's believability helps ground an operatic storyline, bringing a sense of realism to Almodovar's passionate melodrama. Bardem plays a police detective shot during a confrontation between his alcoholic partner, a rejected romantic, and the sexy junkie who turned down his advances.
Years later, his legs are paralyzed but he has become an unlikely celebrity in the sport of wheelchair basketball and is happily married to the now-reformed woman at the center of the violence that crippled him. Released from prison, the young man who shot him now perversely resents his victim's recent success and plots to steal his wife from him. The tangled web gets impossibly messier when the ex-con begins an affair with the wife of Bardem's former partner.
If there is a lead actor in this intricately plotted ensemble drama, it is probably Liberto Rabal, who plays the sexually driven ex-con. But without ever upstaging any of his co-stars, Bardem dominates his scenes with his studied physicality and emotional intensity. His transition from upbeat athlete to furiously jealous lover helps bring the movie to its boiling point. MGM's "Live Flesh" DVD is a no-frills package, but features a nice transfer that does justice to Almodovar's colorful, lush images and the film's carefully detailed settings.
Simple, restrained and gentle, "Mondays in the Sun" (2002) is about as far from the tone of "Live Flesh" as one could imagine, but it's a lovely and quietly powerful piece of work and another great showcase for Bardem. He plays the central figure of a group of unemployed shipyard workers who lost their jobs during a labor dispute. Ending most of their aimless days at a neighborhood bar, they seem almost resigned to their status as life's castoffs. Almost, but not quite.
Bardem's character still has a defiant, socialist streak in him and his anger is never far from the surface even as his humor and charm sometimes hides the fury. But he does not have the makings of a revolutionary. His great act of rebellion is to break a street light again immediately after paying for damage he did to it originally during a labor demonstration. Terribly flawed yet somehow still a winning personality, this figure of frustrated loyalty is played to perfection by Bardem.
"Mondays in the Sun" is a film of small moments, not major revelations, and some may be impatient with its minimal plot and lack of momentum. But others will find director and co-writer Fernando Leon de Aranoa's empathetic portrayal of these lost men and the camaraderie that keeps them going irresistible. Sporting a beard, a beer belly and balding slightly, Bardem doesn't merely look older than his 35 years: He physically disappears into his role without a trace of technique evident to the viewer. Available on a DVD from Lions Gate that includes a behind-the-scenes documentary, this is a sweetly sad (and at times rather funny) snapshot of a way of life rarely covered in films.
Films featured in DVDetours™ may be difficult to find at many video stores but are widely available from some of the online rental services, such as Netflix, Green Cine, QwikFliks and Blockbuster Online. Inventories vary from company to company and DVDetours has no connection to any of these services.
© 2005 Joel Wicklund