Thursday, April 26, 2018

Neglected Gem: Mondays in the Sun (2002)

Luis Tosar (left) and Javier Bardem (right) in Mondays in the Sun. (Photo: MUBI)

The title of the Spanish movie Mondays in the Sun sounds like a reference to people who live a life of ease. In fact, it’s ironic: the men whose stories comprise the narrative used to be co-workers at a portside dockyard until they were laid off, so now they spend weekdays lying in the sun because they have no jobs to go to. They are Santa (a thickly bearded Javier Bardem); José (Luis Tosar), whose wife Ana (Nieve de Medina) currently brings home the only household money; Lino (José Angel Egido), so scared he’s losing potential work to younger men that he dyes his hair when he goes down to the unemployment office; and Amador (Celso Bugallo), a drunk whose wife has left him, though he pretends she’s out of town visiting relatives. Rico (Joaquin Climent) and Reina (Enrique VIllén), who used to work alongside their friends, were laid off a year later, when the dockyard finally shut down. Rico took his severance pay and opened a bar, while Reina has managed to land work as a security guard, which makes him, relative to his companions, flush – at least, enough to buy them drinks. (Santa’s pride resents this gesture, just as he resents his former co-workers’ signing an agreement with their employers that he and others opposed.) Then there’s Sergei (Serge Riaboukine), a Russian who emigrated to Spain when the Soviet Union collapsed and his career as an astronaut came to an abrupt end. Now he’s among the Spanish unemployed.

Directed by Fernando Léon de Aranoa from a script he wrote with Ignacio Del Moral, Mondays in the Sun is about the frustration and restlessness and barely concealed anger of men who mostly can’t get work, and when they do it’s not the work they were trained to do. It has a marvelous subject, and it’s beautifully observed and, across the board, superbly acted. De Aranoa is tuned into the neo-realist aesthetic: he understands how to take us inside his characters’ heads by seemingly simple means – by showing us, in intricate detail, how they respond to the situations around them. Bardem, a wondrously empathic actor, is especially good at conveying the thoughts and feelings of a man who refuses to let his circumstances humble him, even though he lives in a seedy boarding house that restricts him from bringing women home. Forced to pay damages for a street light he broke during a labor demonstration, he accedes, but afterwards, as he and his lawyer drive past the repaired light, he breaks it again for his own satisfaction. In one scene he takes Amador home when he’s too plastered to find his own way. When they arrive, Santa sees for the first time how his friend lives, in a grimy, disgusting flat, where the dirty dishes molder in the sink because the water’s been turned off. As the camera spins slowly around Amador’s digs, Bardem makes us understand that Santa is sizing up exactly how far he himself is from falling into this pathetic state. Bardem is even better in the scene where he finds Amador’s body on the ledge above his front door, where he either fell in a stupor or jumped out of despair.

The picture is episodic, but it adds up. In one sequence Lino, looking around at the much younger men at the unemployment office, suddenly realizes the dye in his hair is running down his scalp. (Presumably de Aranoa got this idea from Visconti’s Death in Venice, but it’s very effective here.) When Ana comes home from the fish-factory job she abhors, she resists José’s efforts to make love to her: she thinks she smells, she doesn’t feel sexy. He begins to worry that she’s sleeping with someone from work. Their barely adequate financial situation and the fact that she’s carrying him spark tensions between them that remain unspoken until they try to get a bank loan but can’t because they have no guarantor. José boils up at the thought that he isn’t sufficient, in the eyes of the banker, to guarantee his own loan, and Ana is furious at him because she saw he’d been drinking before the interview and so she knew it was going to be a disaster. In the street outside the bank, they express all the ugly things to each other they’ve been repressing, including her bitter disappointment that they decided not to have kids. A few days later she tells him, before trekking off to the factory, that they have to talk when she gets home, and you can see how terrified he is about what’s coming. He tells Santa that all he wants is for everything to stay the same, but it’s already too late, because their lives have changed irrevocably. It turns out she’s decided to leave him; she packs her bag and sets it down next to the sofa, reaching down to make sure she can touch it – as if for security, or for a quick getaway – while she waits to tell him goodbye. But when he returns – from Amador’s funeral – he curls up in her lap and talks about what happened to his friend, how his wife must have grown tired and abandoned him, and he was too wiped out and too humiliated to tell anyone. We see in Ana’s eyes that she knows she can’t walk out on him now. She quietly covers her bag with a blanket so José won’t see it.

Ana’s eleventh-hour decision to stay with her husband, however long it lasts, is a relief to us; I’m not sure we could stand another heartbreak. And then de Aranoa wisely shifts tones in the final scene, where Santa and the other men hijack a ferry to scatter Amador’s ashes over the water. It’s a lovely finale; the movie fizzles out, but in a graceful way. This unassuming little movie stays with you; I’ve watched it twice more since it came out and liked it better every time.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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