Living like it's a weekend everyday sounds like paradise, unless you're
eking out a life of boredom without prospects. That basically
encapsulates the lives of the unemployed Spanish dock workers that
people Fernando Leon de Aranoa's Mondays in the Sun (Lunes al Sol, Los). After a failed labor strike, five former co-workers routinely continue to hang out together at a bar—hardly productive, but they form an impromptu support group for each other, like a morose version of Cheers. With such a premise the plot treads water throughout, but Javier Bardem's amazing performance takes center stage in the wonderfully crafted character study. Whether Bardem's astounding acting or its underlying "safer" socio-political content inexplicably earned Mondays in the Sun the nod as Spain's 2002 Oscar contender over Pedro Almodovar's superior Talk to Her remains a mystery. Regardless, it's not a bad film.
Similar to Mike Leigh's All or Nothing, with more lighthearted treatment, the film draws realistically detailed portraits of the working class. Unemployed dock workers meet regularly at the bar recently opened by Rico (Joaquin Climent) immediately after he lost his shipyard job. The only other regular to have a job is Reina (Enrique Villen); it's a menial one as a security guard but it allows him to sneak his buddies onto the sports area roof to watch soccer games. The rest cope with their unemployed status in varying ways.
Elderly Amador (Celso Bugallo) has basically given up on Life and become an unrepentant alcoholic who won't go home; middle aged Lino (Jose Angel Egido) continues to apply for jobs that he has no qualifications for and contemplates dying his graying hair to appear younger; Jose (Luis Tosar) becomes frustrated with his economic impotence in light of his wife Ana's (Nieve de Medina) canning factory job. He obviously continues to love his wife, fearing her growing distance from him due to his unemployment, but the situation provides a sweet moment. Daily Ana tries to mask the fish smell with perfumes and deodorants, to which Jose tells her that she "smells like a mermaid" just as the camera closes in for heartfelt smooching.
Charismatic leader of the down and out crew is Santa (Bardem), a womanizing charmer that bullies ferry attendants and takes full advantage of free cheese samples at the supermarket. It's hard to believe that this is the same actor nominated for an Oscar just two years before, as the chameleon-like actor appears with full beard, middle-aged paunch, and moves like a man in his forties. Bardem has to carry this movie as well since he provides a focal point for each of the other characters, including grouchy old recluse Amador in a key scene where we learn why the old man practically lives at the bar. For people that insist on a "message," Amador supplies one of the sort with his overtly metaphoric story about Siamese twins, and how the bar comrades are closely joined. This plays out literally with Amador serving as the wake up call to his younger associates, as he represents the nihilistic path they are headed down.
If you're looking for a provocative film or one with an entertaining plot, Mondays in the Sun isn't your best bet. Languidly paced with every day like every other day of the week, it has no uniquely profound meanings that you can't find in other works; however, the film has other worthwhile merits. Treading a fine line between melancholy and light-heartedness the richly drawn characters did grow on me in a Spanish neo realistic sense and there's an undeniable poignancy to their plight. The location shooting lends authenticity as does the cinematography that alternates between claustrophobic darkness and brightness, but mostly the unpretentious acting makes their situation feel realistic. They behave naturally enough to ignore the fact that they are professionals performing in a high production vehicle. If nothing else, watch it for Javier Bardem, who is rapidly establishing himself as among the world's very best at his craft.