Thursday, 3 May 2012

Post no.100: Nadie conoce a nadie / Nobody Knows Anybody (Mateo Gil, 1999)

    So I thought it about time (what with this being my 100th post) that I take a look at the film that gives this blog its name [I have kept it as spoiler-free as possible]. As will be apparent (through previous posts), my area of research has been star studies, specifically contemporary Spanish stardom and how interactions that actors / stars have with the national (i.e. concepts of ‘Spanishness’) change over time. I had four case studies that examined the careers of actors who started working in cinema at different points in the fifteen-year period I was looking at; this made it possible to track gradual changes undergone by Spanish stardom in terms of the form and content of star images in relation to the national. That is the prism through which I first saw Nadie conoce a nadie / Nobody Knows Anybody (Mateo Gil, 1999): as a piece of the puzzle in considering these issues in relation to the career of Eduardo Noriega. In relation to the people I took as case studies, Noriega emerged in the mid-1990s when the stardom of Javier Bardem and Penélope Cruz was still in ascension, and Paz Vega (the fourth of my case studies) had yet to appear. He therefore overlaps two distinct ‘groups’ (I’m deliberately avoiding the word ‘generation’) of Spanish stars from the contemporary period: that of Bardem, Cruz and Jordi Mollà, and that of Vega and the El otro lado de la cama (Emilio Martínez-Lázaro, 2002) gang, and arguably that is manifested in how his stardom and his interactions with the national share different traits with both groups. The Spanish press has constructed a star narrative for Noriega that aligns him with an illustrious predecessor, by seizing on the fact that he is from Santander and travelled to Madrid to study acting in 1992 (the key is that he is not madrileño); several profiles draw parallels between the malagueño Antonio Banderas going to Madrid and becoming a ‘chico Almodóvar’ in the 1980s and the santanderino Noriega going to Madrid and becoming a ‘chico Amenábar’ in the 1990s (Díaz-Cano 1999:16). 

     Like Banderas, Noriega was initially pigeonholed as ‘el guapo’ or ‘el galán’; his good looks are an undeniable part of his star quality and he is one of the few male Spanish stars who has persistently had his stardom viewed through the lens of ‘sex appeal’ (Perriam 2003: 7). However, he has worked against the perception of simply being a ‘galán’, and as his career has progressed and he has taken on more mature roles, the view that he is just a pretty face has subsided (Perriam 2003: 179). Numerous profiles and interviews (such as those with Ruiz Mantilla (1999), Ponga (2001), and de la Torriente (2007)) comment on his intelligence and discernment in choosing his roles, and he has proven himself in a range of different roles and genres: as Paula Ponga says, ‘su trayectoria no es la del niño bonito’ (2004: 78). His propensity for working with first-time directors and art-house auteurs (such as Marc Recha (Las manos vacías (2003) and Petit indi (2009)) has lent his image (and perceptions of his career) a seriousness that was perhaps lacking at the start, as well as setting him on a markedly different path to Bardem, Cruz, or Vega (and of the four, I think that his career is by far the most interesting). He stands as a Spanish example of the ‘co-existence of mainstream and auteur cinema in a single star’s image’ in smaller film industries (Vincendeau 2000: 2).
     I will eventually write about Tesis / Thesis (Alejandro Amenábar, 1996) and Abre los ojos / Open Your Eyes (Alejandro Amenábar, 1997) for the blog but, although this post isn’t about those films, it is difficult to discuss Nadie conoce a nadie without giving some background to ‘the Amenábar connection’. The creative partnership that Eduardo Noriega formed with writer-directors Alejandro Amenábar and Mateo Gil began well before the success of Tesis. The association persists, with Noriega still referred to as a ‘chico Amenábar’ (Gosálvez 2004: 26), and Amenábar (and Noriega’s admiration for him) is still a stock section of Noriega’s interviews and profiles (for example, de la Torriente (2007: 85)); the importance of this director-star relationship to the initial development of Noriega’s image is unique among the stars that I examined in my research. They met while Noriega was studying at the Real Escuela Superior de Arte Dramático (Resad) and replied to an advert that said ‘casting para corto en video súper ocho. Sin remunerar’ (Ruiz Mantilla 1999: 62): he starred in several of Amenábar and Gil’s short films (Soñé que te mataba (Mateo Gil, 1994), Luna (Alejandro Amenábar, 1994 and 1995), and Allanamiento de morada (Mateo Gil, 1998)), some of which are obvious precursors of Tesis and Abre los ojos (for example, Luna’s car journey -with Noriega as the passenger- foreshadows the one César takes with Nuria in Abre los ojos). Noriega’s roles in Tesis, Abre los ojos, and Nadie conoce a nadie were written especially for him.
     Making his debut in Amenábar’s work positioned Eduardo Noriega within Spanish cinema’s 1990s generational shift in a different way to either Javier Bardem or Penélope Cruz; although those two were undeniably at the vanguard of a new generation of Spanish stars in the early 1990s, they started their ascendancy in collaboration with established directors whereas Noriega did so alongside a new directorial talent (and has continued to work with first-time directors throughout his career) and a different set of industrial imperatives. Amenábar is usually the example given (alongside Álex de la Iglesia) when commentators discuss the visual and narrative changes that this new ‘generation’ of filmmakers heralded for Spanish cinema: for example, Paul Julian Smith argues that Amenábar is the filmmaker who is ‘most representative of the trends in contemporary Spanish cinema’ (2004: 94). The new ‘generation’ of filmmakers were seen as breaking new ground in Spanish cinema (although there are also continuities with earlier generations) not only through their visual aesthetic and use of genre but also through the aim of entertaining audiences: Amenábar wrote Tesis not because of any political, social, or generational preoccupations, but purely to write something that would entertain himself (Vera 2002: 19). Amenábar’s desire to make films that are not ‘limited’ to the Spanish market means that Eduardo Noriega started his career in two films that were highly successful in Spain but that consciously avoided links to the national and traditions of Spanish cinema, and took their cinematic styles and popular genre leanings from Hollywood and / or international cinema.
     Nadie conoce a nadie was Mateo Gil’s directorial feature debut and reinforced Noriega’s association with the genre that has consistently brought him box office success in Spain: the thriller. The film takes place one year into the future with suitably apocalyptic events unfolding in Seville as the forces of good and (self-proclaimed) evil do battle during the Holy Week of 2000. Noriega plays an aspiring writer (Simón) making a living creating crosswords for a local newspaper, who finds himself at the centre of a violent conspiracy that he begins to suspect is being instigated by his flatmate, Sapo (Jordi Mollà). Unable to confide in his girlfriend (Paz Vega), he enlists the help of a co-worker from the newspaper, María (Natalia Verbeke), but they are both out of their depth and the conspirators’ net closes in around them. The film is a more-than-competent addition to the genre: it is well paced, makes the most of its unusual location, and is shot with élan. Nadie conoce a nadie could almost be seen in the same vein as a Hollywood-style star vehicle because (as already stated) Noriega’s role was written especially for him and is tailored to his existing star image, and the film also utilises the associations that his presence produces; the publicity materials (interviews and articles connected to the film within the national press) repeatedly highlight the Amenábar connection between Gil and Noriega (Gil and Amenábar are still writing partners and although Gil wrote this script on his own, his friend’s fingerprints are still on the film: Amenábar composed the score) and the sort of expectations that such a collaboration should generate. 
Danger is lurking over Simón's shoulder at the start of the chase sequence through Seville's backstreets 
      Gil said at the time that the role was written for Noriega because ‘Eduardo Noriega tiene una de esas escasas miradas capaces de sostener un personaje que se pasa toda la película viendo, preguntando y recibiendo información; una mirada que transmite el estado de ánimo sin necesidad de palabras’ [Eduardo Noriega has one of those scarce gazes capable of sustaining a character who spends all of the film seeing, questioning and receiving information; a gaze that transmits the state of being without words] (Gil 1999: 206). As is quickly apparent if you peruse the critical materials relating to Tesis and Abre los ojos, Noriega’s ‘mirada’ is a key element of his star image and a recurrent element in discussions of his performances, usually taken to indicate an emphasis on the psychological (as opposed to the physical) in his characterizations. For example, although his performances in Tesis and Abre los ojos are rooted in body language (something that the actor emphasises in his discussions of the performances (Vera 2002: 113, 115)), the focus remains on his face and eyes (something that the masks and make-up in Abre los ojos reinforce); in Abre los ojos, faces are integral to the presentation of the fragility of identities and reality, whether it is César’s scars disappearing and reappearing in the blink of an eye, or Sofía (Penélope Cruz) suddenly becoming Núria (Najwa Nimri) (and vice versa). The majority of Noriega’s films feature close-ups of his face (or just his eyes) whilst he ‘looks’ intensely to communicate thoughts or emotions without verbal expression: it has become one of his ‘continuities of iconography’ (Dyer [1979] 1998: 62). Likewise in Nadie conoce a nadie his face is frequently shown in close-up; it is therefore appropriate that when Simón wants to disguise himself (he becomes implicated in the deaths caused by the conspirators) he picks up a pair of sunglasses (despite it being night).
In disguise
     Unlike the early Amenábar films on which he collaborated (which deliberately elide the national space in which they are set, with the exception of Madrid’s Gran Vía in the famous opening sequence of Abre los ojos), Mateo Gil roots his first film in a very specific location saying that ‘la película contiene una obsesión personal: que las cosas transcurran en sitios concretos’ [the film contains a personal obsession: that things take place in concrete locations] (Gil 1999: 206). Although stylistically a continuation of the work he had done with Amenábar, and continuing the theme of contrasting reality with the virtual (and the dislocation between appearances and reality), Gil’s film does not shy away from highlighting the ‘local’ setting. This is evident through the multiple helicopter shots of the city as well as the titles that appear at key junctures giving the date, time and location of what is transpiring: Seville is an integral part of the film. Chris Perriam notes that there is ‘a range of nation- and region-specific reference’ (2003: 176) within the film:
It is of obvious significance that the crucial moments of violence in Sapo’s game of terror should be directed against time-honoured traditions and beliefs (the processions of Seville’s Holy Week and their inescapable connections with the right wing, its past, and its money). Spanish audiences will also have been quick to see a critique of the more recent idolatries that were the Expo 92 celebrations and constructions at Seville (with their connections to the new ‘socialists’; the ‘new Spain’; and, eventually, corruption and the end of an era). (2003: 176)
Nadie conoce a nadie contrasts tradition and modernity through the physical landmarks of the city (the Giralda being contrasted visually with the Puente del Alamillo) and the way in which events unfold through a combination of the high-tech (the computer and the listening devices) and the old-fashioned (the tense foot chase through the backstreets and the elements of dressing-up and disguise that various characters engage in). The emphasis on Seville’s architecture and the contrasts made between the traditional and the contemporary highlights the changes that Spain has undergone, and alongside the centrality of the city’s famous Semana Santa, offer an illustration of the inward-looking national cinema that reflects on ‘its cultural heritage, its indigenous traditions, [and] its sense of common identity and community’ (Higson 2000: 67). That the film is so rooted in a specific geographic location (and one that is associated with traditional Spanish identities) is paralleled in the comparative (i.e. in comparison to Bosco, César and other characters from the early part of Noriega’s career) psychological stability of Simón. [I argue in my thesis that, in those of Noriega’s films with a contemporary setting, there is a correlation between the sense of geographical location and the psychological stability (or otherwise) of Noriega’s characters (this is most apparent when you compare Nadie conoce a nadie and Guerreros / Warriors (Daniel Calparsoro, 2002) with the Amenábar films) –see the chapter on Noriega in my thesis (link on the right) for a far more detailed discussion of this].
One of the multiple shots of Seville's cityscape
      Instead of the fragmented and unstable identities that we can see in Noriega’s earlier films, in Nadie conoce a nadie the fragility of identity is manifested via Simón’s self-doubt and an absence of belief. This is illustrated near the start of the film when Simón considers giving up his attempts to write a novel and his friend Padre Andrés warns him of the dangers of not believing in anything (‘Hay que creer en algo, Simón. En Dios, en literatura o en un par de tetas. Pero hay que creer. Si no, estás perdido. Y cuando se está perdido se puede llegar a creer en cualquier cosa’ [One has to believe in something, Simon. In God, in literature, or in a pair of tits. But one has to believe. If not, you are lost. And when one is lost, one can come to believe in anything]). Rocío García describes the film as one that ‘habla de la crisis de valores, de la búsqueda de algo en lo que creer’ [talks of the crisis of values, of the search for something to believe in] (1999: 8) and Gil supports this view by stating that it contains ‘una pequeña reflexión sobre la generación a la que yo pertenezco, sobre la falta de creencias ideológicas, políticas o religiosas’ [a small reflection on the generation that I am part of, about the lack of ideological, political, or religious beliefs] (Gil 1999: 206). 
      But beliefs can be renewed and doubts overcome, and it is significant that although Simón has a level of neuroticism he is still rational (seemingly irrational fears are grounded in reality) and he has an ordered mind (signalled via his creation of crosswords); although he gets lost (both philosophically and actually in the labyrinthine backstreets of Seville) he is able to put the situation into perspective and see a pattern in events (he has his moment of clarity in the tower overlooking the panorama of the city and then methodically plots the events onto a map). That he is able to understand events only when he has removed himself from the central location (the streets of Seville) underlines that understanding one’s own culture is all the more difficult because one is part of it, and it is worth noting that (unlike Sapo) Simón is not native to Seville, so he has the distance to be objective about the city’s culture and traditions. Simón has a sense of perspective and solidity of purpose that other early Noriega characters lack, and unlike those characters he is not displaced: at the end of the film he is still in Seville and has discovered the things in which he believes and, more importantly, that he also believes in himself. 
Eduardo Noriega’s top four films in terms of cinema audience numbers (all reached more than one million spectators):  Alatriste (Agustín Díaz Yanes, 2006), Abre los ojos (Alejandro Amenábar, 1997), El Lobo (Miguel Courtois, 2004), and Nadie conoce a nadie (Mateo Gil, 1999).
     As mentioned above, Noriega’s more notable box-office successes have tended to be thrillers with a dash of action (although Alatriste is admittedly more of an historical swashbuckler) and the higher profile films that he has made abroad (for example, Vantage Point (Pete Travis, 2008) and Transsiberian (Brad Anderson, 2008) –and I assume this will also be the case for the forthcoming film with Arnold Schwarzenegger, The Last Stand (Jee-woon Kim, 2013)) also fit this genre-based pattern. Nadie conoce a nadie was a considerable hit in 1999: more than 1.4 million spectators saw it in Spanish cinemas on its release in November 1999, and such was its endurance on Spanish screens that it appears in the lists of top ten Spanish films for both 1999 (no.6) and 2000 (no.7). Noriega has been quite disparaging about ‘blockbusters’ (in his eyes that word appears not to include his work with Amenábar and Gil) and has made it clear in interviews that he is not interested in making ‘el cine comercial’ if there is nothing else to the project (Alonso 2002: 23). He believes that ‘el cine tiene que servir para algo, como reflexión sobre el comportamiento del ser humano…y si no, no merece la pena, de verdad, coges un micrófono por la radio y largas tu cuento, que es mucho más barato’ [cinema has to stand for something, as a reflection of what it is to be human…and if not, it isn’t worth the effort, in truth -take your microphone on the radio and tell your story, that is much cheaper] (Asua 2002: 26). He continues to work with first-time directors (most recently in El mal ajeno (Oskar Santos, 2010)) but despite a concerted effort on his part to continue in the independent / art house end of the spectrum (for example, his films with Marc Recha, and the films he has made in France), his star image is integrally connected to the mainstream generic frameworks of his more successful films. 
      But what of Mateo Gil? The success of his first film makes it all the more surprising that we had to wait twelve years for his second (last year’s Blackthorn). It seems to be the case that he has had funding fall through on more than one occasion (including for his much-talked-of adaptation of Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo), a not uncommon situation in Spanish cinema (the name Enrique Urbizu springs to mind in this context) but disappointing nonetheless. He has also continued to co-write with Alejandro Amenábar (i.e. Mar adentro / The Sea Inside (2004) and Agora (2009) –both directed by Amenábar) and on other projects, such as the Noriega-starring El método / The Method (Marcelo Piñeyro, 2005). Blackthorn (not actually written by Gil, but by Miguel Barros) was widely admired by the critics at home and abroad, and won several Goyas earlier this year, but it didn’t set the box-office alight in Spain. One hopes that that doesn’t preclude Gil’s images from gracing our screens again, sooner rather than later.

Alonso, S. (2002) –‘Eduardo Noriega: la posguerra de un actor’, La mirada, month unknown, pp.18-23.
Asua, A. (2002) – ‘Eduardo Noriega’, Cinerama, April, pp.24-26.
de la Torriente, E. (2007) –‘Noriega da el gran salto’, El País Semanal, 18th November, pp.78-85.
Díaz-Cano, P.J. (1998) –‘El nuevo galán del cine español’, Oro, month unknown, pp.16-20.
Dyer, R. ([1979] 1998) – Stars, with supplementary chapter by P. McDonald, London: BFI Publishing.
García, R. (1999b) –‘Una caja de sorpresas e intrigas’, El País, 6th June, pp.8-9.
Gil, M. (1999) –‘Asesinatos en Semana Santa’, Fotogramas, December, pp.204-206.
Gosálvez, P. (2004) – ‘Eduardo Noriega: «No tengo claro que quiera ser actor»’, El País de las Tentaciones, 22nd October, p.26.
Higson, A. (2000) – ‘The Limiting Imagination of National Cinema’, in Cinema and Nation, edited by M. Hjort and S. MacKenzie, London and New York: Routledge.
Perriam, C. (2003) – Stars and Masculinities in Spanish Cinema: From Banderas to Bardem, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Ponga, P. (2001) – ‘Irresistiblemente listo’, Fotogramas, May, pp.94-102. 
(2004) – ‘El galán oscuro’, Fotogramas, November, p.78.
Ruiz Mantilla, J.  (1999) – ‘Eduardo Noriega, el nuevo seductor’, El País Semanal, 7th November, pp.60-67.
Smith, P.J. (2004) – ‘High Anxiety: Abre los ojos / Vanilla Sky’, Journal of Romance Studies, 4:1, pp.91-102.
Vera, C. (2002) – Cómo Hacer Cine 1: Tesis, de Alejandro Amenábar, Madrid: Editorial Fundamentos.
Vincendeau, G. (2000) –Stars and Stardom in French Cinema, London & New York: Continuum.