The underside of the capitalist system is a subject not often treated in U.S. films, but “Mondays in the Sun” addresses the topic powerfully from a European perspective. Fernando Leon de Aranoa’s film, which swept the Goya Awards–Spain’s equivalent of the Oscars–earlier this year, isn’t so much a single narrative as a collection of intertwined character studies dramatizing the devastating effect of unemployment on a group of middle-aged men and their families and friends. The particular cruelty of the situation rests on the suggestion that the men are out of work not as the natural, if unfortunate, result of an economic downturn, but because a conscious decision was made to close down the shipyard where they worked in order to maximize profits for investors. Their misery, in other words, is portrayed as a mere means to satisfy the owners’ greed.
Javier Bardem, with his beard and added weight making him look utterly unlike the actor familiar from “Before Night Falls” or “The Dancer Upstairs,” easily dominates things as Santa, a gruff, angry fellow who excoriates those who’d accepted early offers to accept buyouts for their jobs and is engaged in a drawn-out court battle over an accusation that he’d vandalized a street lamp in a rage over his treatment. Santa spends his time drinking and fuming in a neighborhood bar with his pals (the picture in one way might be thought of as an anti-“Cheers”), linking up with women (the bar owner’s young daughter Nata and he even exchange only partially humorous words), supplementing his funds by agreeing to take over Nata’s babysitting chores to free her up for happier pursuits, and dreaming of emigrating to the “paradise” of Australia. Santa’s closest friends are Lino (Jose Angel Egido), a chubby. quietly intense guy perpetually going on job interviews even though it’s obvious that prospective employers prefer much younger applicants, and Jose (Luis Tosar), a nervous type anxious about his relationship with his wife Ana (Nieve De Medina), who’s exhausted by her work in a fish-canning factory and self-conscious about the odor that clings to her from the job. On the periphery of the action are barmen Rico (Joaquin Climent), a former dockworker who used his severance pay to open the establishment, and two other patrons, the older, penurious Amador (Celso Bugalio) and Sergei (Serge Riaboukine), a good-natured Russian expatriate.
“Mondays in the Sun” doesn’t so much build a straight-line story as offer a collection of vignettes about these characters to provide insight into the debilitating experience of being without income or purpose. There are moments of humor in the film–Lino’s efforts to appear more youthful by dyeing his hair and surreptitiously borrowing some of his son’s wardrobe, or a scene in which Santa’s reading of a children’s story to his charges dissolves into a denunciation of how false the tale’s rosy vision of the world is–but they all have a dark edge to them. This is engaged filmmaking that makes a political point, and the observant script and incisive direction give it considerable power. The strength of the acting is an equally essential component. Bardem’s performance is astonishingly compelling; he embodies a virile, emotional man as convincingly as he did the quiet, recessive character he plays in “The Dancer Upstairs.” Tosar and Egido complement him beautifully, and the supporting cast is unfailingly strong. The picture looks right, too–gritty and grey, a mirror image of the men’s inner feelings.
Leon and his collaborators offer no easy answers in “Mondays in the Sun.” In the end, it suggests, all one can do is continue to struggle and remain resolute in the face of disappointment. It’s not the sort of ending a Hollywood film would tolerate, but its simple truth is a perfect close to a film that rarely fails to seem genuine and committed.