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Santa Is Coming to Town: Javier Bardem plays an out-of-work welder named Santa in 'Mondays in the Sun.'

Iberian Splendor

'Mondays in the Sun' is a winning film about the losing life

By Richard von Busack

NOT ONLY DOES Javier Bardem show a different side of himself in Mondays in the Sun, so does Spain. This comedy/drama is shot in Galicia, the forehead of the "face" of the Iberian Peninsula, but the landscape, depressed economy and weather are so akin to the Pacific Northwest that you get déjà vu. The film could be remade without any effort along the rim of the Puget Sound. Some critics have excused how Mondays in the Sun snaked out Talk to Her as Spain's official Oscar entry on the grounds that director Fernando León de Aranoa's film is more authentically Spanish than Almodóvar's movie. On the contrary, Mondays in the Sun is every bit as universal as Talk to Her; the film has particular resonance for laid-off souls in the Severance, I mean, Silicon Valley.

Bardem plays an unemployed welder named Santa--an appropriate name, since he boasts the gut and beard of a middle-aged Santa Claus. He's still macho enough to stir the passing interest of a barkeeper's 15-year-old daughter or beguile a woman handing out cheese samples in the supermarket. His chronically unemployed friends get about as much fun out of life as can be poured at the dockyard bar where they hang out.

But Santa dreams of cutting out to Australia, where Spaniards have made some money over the years; there's even an Australia-shaped water stain on the ceiling over his bed in a flophouse where he stays. Under the film's titles we see what cut Santa and his friends off from the working world. It's a situation familiar to any local longshoremen. First there was a violent strike, then a shipyard closing. During the fighting with the riot police, Santa got hit with an 8,000-peseta fine for damage to a lamppost, and the law is insisting that he pay it. Pride dictates fighting the fine all the way to the gates of jail.

While Santa sorts that situation out, we follow his pals--Jose (Luis Tosar), whose unhappy wife, Ana, works at a tuna packing plant (Nieve de Medina is convincing in the role of Ana, authentically suggesting 100 years of weariness in a 45-year-old body); Lino (José Ángel Egido), who still applies fruitlessly to every job he hears about and is certain he's too gray to get a job.

Though Mondays in the Sun sounds like it, it isn't quite Ken Loach or Mike Leigh territory; while the situation is familiar, there is freshness--and even hope--here. Bardem's slouch suggests a man warding off internal crumbling, but his unkillable hopes of escape are mirrored in a musical theme, Charles Trenet's "La Mer," the French song Bobby Darin covered as "Beyond the Sea." Bardem is what keeps the film from being too sad to watch; his self-amusement inspires the Cannery Row-like side of seaside loafing: as in an episode where he pinch-hits as a baby-sitter, reading the "The Ant and the Grasshopper" to an affluent couple's child, until Santa sputters in fury over the politics of the fable. This movie's wit is summed up by one joke here, about a pair of Russian Communist Party members. "Everything they told us about Communism was a lie!" complains the first. The second says, "Yes, but everything they told us about capitalism was true."

Mondays in the Sun (R; 113 min.), directed by Fernando León de Aranoa, written by Ignacio del Moral and de Aranda, photographed by Alfredo F. Mayo and starring Javier Bardem and Nieve de Medina, opens Friday at Camera 3 in San Jose.

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From the August 28-September 3, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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