Fernando León de Aranoa’s fourth film, Los lunes al sol (Mondays in the Sun), is a mellow, warm, wry, deeply humane comedy-of-character and comedy-of-life, about a group of long unemployed former workers at a coastal shipyard in Vigo, in northwest Spain. It’s a fairly (though certainly not dauntingly) complex film, patient in the extreme and, for the most part, beautifully realized as it portrays the daily toll exacted on these men by their emasculating joblessness and financial predicament. All their days might be Mondays, the beginning of the work week, because each day is like the others, and every day reminds them afresh of their joblessness. In Aranoa’s film, time seems to stand still—or barely, repetitiously move ahead.
I so admire, indeed love, this wonderful film that I wish to post my most serious objections to it at the outset, to be able to set them aside. We know from the sequence that accompanies the opening credits the immediate cause why workers lost their jobs two years earlier: we are shown a violent street confrontation between protesters and police, from which we reasonably infer that the workers were locked out and cut loose. We later learn that some of the older workers, fearful of losing their own jobs, conspired with management one year earlier to effect the severance of younger workers, thus abandoning the worker solidarity that alone might have shored up their political strength. We also learn that it’s unclear just why the shipyard has altogether closed. One possible cause is global capitalism; other labor forces in other countries may have submitted bids too low to enable the Vigo shipyard to compete any longer. Another possibility, rather blithely tossed out, is of a local nature; perhaps the shipyard was bought out by developers keen on transforming the seaside property into high rises and parking lots. All this infuriates; I cannot believe that in all this time none of the 200 cut-loose workers were curious and investigatively savvy enough to determine just what broader machinations behind and beyond the immediate cause separated them from their livelihoods. (I admit: I worry that I’m chauvinstically projecting onto Europeans an American mania for initiative—“rugged individualism”—that shortchanges the broader, and more accurate, perception of what insurmountable forces are arrayed against ordinary people. But 200 people! I can’t accept that, driven by a radical impulse, not one ferreted out the cause of the shipyard’s demise.) It makes all of them, including the handful the film follows, seem unnecessarily passive and threatens to introduce notes of self-pity into their predicament that much else in the film might otherwise succeed in keeping at bay. I have other problems with the film that I’m also about to note, but this is the one that most challenges my placing Mondays in the Sun in the top rank of films. It’s a flaw in the film’s foundation—and it helps make the film politically murky at best, politically indecisive at worst.
Indeed, although the film lights on many pertinent points (for instance, the fact that jobless workers, beyond severance pay, are provided with no safety net to defend them against financial devastation), there’s a curious haziness to the film’s political disposition. It’s Leftist, to be sure, but guardedly Leftist, carefully Leftist. One character, Sergei, a Russian emigré, formerly (he claims) a Soviet cosmonaut, quips that, while everything about the former Soviet Union was a lie, regrettably everything that was said about capitalism is true. That’s clever, but maybe a bit too clever a formulation; its even-handedness grates. Moreover, despite the opening flashback of protest, and the later remark by one of the characters that the workers should have stuck together, I’m made uneasy by the film’s invocation of what might have been a more fully developed theme. The idea of worker solidarity seems to crop up in this film as a matter of convenience; it seems closer to lip service—a point thrown into a litany of points—than to a full and resounding aria, a rock-bottom and all-informing conviction. As a political film, it seems to me, Mondays in the Sun is unfocused at best, hollow at worst.
Another inconsistency, hugely distracting, provides further evidence that Aranoa may have failed to think through a number of aspects. Much of the film’s action, which consists of the men sitting around and talking, drinking, and blowing off steam, unfolds in a bar that one of the laborers, Rico, established with his severance pay. He and his 15-year-old daughter, Nata, are richly indulgent of the others. The bar, we are told, is a successful operation. However, Rico’s former fellow workers only inconsistently pay; some can’t pay at all and get served drinks anyhow. None of this would especially matter were it not for the fact that we never once, at least as far as I can recall, see anyone else patronizing the tiny establishment. (There’s a vast bar scene in the film, but surely that’s occurring somewhere else.) I love the Eugene O’Neill-ishness of the bar scenes at The Shipyard (that’s what Rico has named it, but for some reason Aranoa coyly delays our finding this out), but how the place is solvent is a mystery. Where is Rico’s living coming from? I suppose it’s possible to conclude that Rico is fibbing when he notes the success of his business, that he is keeping the bar open only as a therapeutic refuge for downtrodden former workers, and this provides an index of his guilt for having subverted his identification with other workers when he, along with many others, conspired with management against a segment of co-workers. However, I cannot accept that he would jeopardize his daughter’s economic well-being for the sake of easing former co-workers’ psychic condition; thus the one reconciliation of the matter I can intellectually make wars with one of my convictions about human nature. Now here is a problem that would have been easy to solve, by hiring extras to play other, unscripted customers at the bar. Aranoa, it appears, is less concerned with what is most reasonable than with what creates dramatic intensity and intimacy—for, doubtless, these qualities are sharpened by the elimination from the bar of all customers except the ones we see and, outside the bar, follow. Even in Spain, this shows, I’m afraid, a Hollywood frame of mind.
Yet, despite all these complaints (and others, including a botched last act), I’m not budging from this film’s corner. Here is one of the most emotionally satisfying human(e) comedies in recent memory. Almost all the characters are likeable. It is good to have gained admittance into the lives of all but one, an older worker who, abandoned by his wife and behind in paying bills (his water has been turned off), either drunkenly falls to his death or commits suicide—an ambiguity that makes real-life sense to me, although it repeats the film’s annoying tendency to suggest this possibility and that.
The most militant of the group is Santa, who has been reduced to shattering street lamps to protest the unfairness of the unemployment in which he and the others find themselves. What a marvelous implicit definition we find here: ineffective protest—protest, where the authorities themselves don’t know what you’re protesting or, even, that you are protesting anything. Rueful, insightful, witty: these are the qualities, as here, that elevate this film, and they are, among the group, most completely embodied by Santa, whose periodic outbursts of temper punctuate an otherwise temperate personality. Santa helps unify the film by being our observant and patient guide through it. Javier Bardem, fattened up and given a receding hairline and an additional ten years or so, is utterly convincing here. (I wasn’t the least bit moved or impressed, however, by his portrayal of Cuban poet Reynaldo Arenas in Julian Schnabel’s dreadful Before Night Falls, 2000). Bardem won the Goya Award and was similarly named best actor by Spain’s circle of film critics.
Another member of the group, perhaps the angriest, is José. He has quite given up on everything; he isn’t even looking for work. José is the one of the men most visibly in the grip of despair, especially since Ana, his wife, working on her feet on the night shift at a fish processing plant, is the breadwinner now. (At home, Ana fulsomely sprays herself with perfume to mask the fish stench that sickens her; feeling unsexed, she is indisposed to José’s touching but somewhat misguided attempts to reassure her that he still finds her attractive.) But more: he is heartsick that her legs and feet are in such pain from her labor and that even her beauty, such a source of his pride, as a result is fading. José and Ana plainly love one another very deeply, but profound sadness, even beyond the measure of the current crisis, seems to afflict them. Could it be that the problems that the couple are now enduring in fact compound the childlessness of theirs that has already seemed some sort of judgment against them? Luis Tosar, excellent as José, won the Goya Award as best supporting actor; the Spanish critics likewise honored him. However, Nieve de Medina’s performance as Ana may be the most heartrending one in the film; it provides the film’s most telling index of the way that getting fired and subsequent unemployment affect not only the laborers but also their families and loved ones. Ana’s exquisite tact as she desperately tries to hold her marriage together, while at the same time doing her best to hide the effort so that it doesn’t add to her husband’s already burgeoning burden, is astonishing. De Medina, who recalls both Anna Magnani and Anouk Aimée, won both the critics’ accolade as best supporting actress and the Goya as best new actress. (This is, in fact, her sixth film role.) Guided by Aranda, she has made Ana one of my favorite film characters ever.
Yet another one of the men is Lino, who, unlike José, is dogged in his pursuit of another job, applying here, there and everywhere. He and his wife, unlike José and Ana, have a son—a convenient son. Let me explain. So desperate is Lino for any sort of job that he applies for jobs claiming for himself experience that he does not have and jobs that are aimed at a much younger work force. (Lino, in fact, is older than his confederates at the Shipyard bar.) Lino—this film is so marvelous at sympathetically locating and showing us human rationalization!—says he is computer-savvy when he isn’t, but in the meantime he works hard, tutored by his teenaged son, to learn about computers. Moreover, he invades his son’s wardrobe to find clothes that might shave his years, putting him, hopefully, into fighting form for the jobs that are available. In addition, he blackens his hair—only to find the dye running, à la Death in Venice, just before he enters a job interview. Right before another interview, Lino catches his reflection in a mirror and, more realistically, sees just how “not young” he is. When his name is called, he doesn’t respond and leaves. José Ángel Egido, who plays Lino (I would describe Egido as the Spanish John Cazales), shared with Tosar the best supporting actor accolade of the nation’s film critics.
For those who care (we all know that current U.S. filmgoers prefer violent action to penetrating characterization), Mondays in the Sun is as good as character comedy gets. The problems I have with the film, most of which I have noted here, derive from the script, which was written by the director and Ignacio del Moral. Although they may have shortchanged the through-thinking they ought to have mustered, the two men have composed delicious and moving dialogue. Their original script was honored with both the industry’s Goya and the critics’ accolade. However, there is more to a script than dialogue. A script is not only literature; it’s a blueprint for the film.
But I have no reservations regarding the best film and best director prizes that this film has gathered up. Indeed, Mondays in the Sun won the best film prizes from both the industry and the critics in Spain. It won in the same category at the San Sebastián International Film Festival, where is also won the FIPRESI Award, “[f]or its poetic and precise look at people living on the periphery.” Aranoa was named best director by the critics and at San Sebastián.
There are two other major contributors to the film’s beauty. One is the scorer, Lucio Godoy, whose pensive, elegiac music suggests Nino Rota’s. The other is, for me, the film’s unsung hero, Alfred F. Mayo, whose dusky color cinematography does so much to convey the film’s melancholy while not overwhelming the lives of the characters—the humanity—to which this melancholy is attached. I named Mayo best cinematographer of 1990 for Montxo Armendáriz’s tremendous Letters from Alou (1990), and his work is again marvelous in Mondays in the Sun: two totally different palettes, equally expressive. Perhaps it would have been preferable had the film been shot in black and white, which is infinitely more complex, flexible and expressive than color. In color, though, Mayo certainly has helped young Aranoa to achieve all that he miraculously did.