The Good Boss (El buen patrón, 2022), currently playing at The Ritz Five in Philadelphia, received a record of twenty nominations to the Spanish Goya Awards, and won in six categories, including Best Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Score and Editing and, of course, Best Actor for its protagonist Javier Bardem. Anthony Lane, The New Yorker film critic states that: “It seems only fitting that The Good Boss, a new movie from Fernando León de Aranoa, should star Javier Bardem in the title role. So much of Bardem’s career, after all, has been spent in the enticing portrayal of power-mongers” (September 5, 2022).
It is worth comparing Bardem’s role in this film and in Mondays in The Sun (Los lunes al sol, 2002), also directed by Aranoa, and winner as well of several Goyas; best film, best director and best actor for Bardem among them, because more than a powerful man, Bardem portrays the epitome of some Spanish males, trying to adjust to new societal situations, with twenty years difference. In fact, both films share more than stellar casting.
Filmed in Vigo, Mondays in the Sun shows the devastating effects of unemployment when a shipyard shuts down in the northern province of Galicia. Santa (Bardem) and his buddies spend their idle days and nights drinking in the local bar, full of resentment and suffering. The lack of work emasculates them, making them feel useless and frustrated. I refrain from mentioning the outcome of the plot, since the film is available streaming in several platforms and you may want to see for yourselves.
Julio Blanco, the good boss of the title is nothing but. Despite his impeccable wardrobe of cashmere sweaters in shades of pink, silk ties in pale hues, immaculate suits and proper pajamas with matching robes, he is a cad chasing after the young interns. Under the veneer of a new Spaniard who understands the effect of the #MeToo social movement, he tries to manipulate his co-workers, his wife, the local politicians and even the media to no avail.
Both films have a similar structure and start with violent scenes that represent the problems of contemporary Spain at different times: a night of mayhem and destruction by a group of young people in The Good Boss and a serious confrontation between the police and the strikers in Mondays in the Sun. In both cases the cities remain unnamed, representing any provincial city in the country, making their problems universal. Use of symbolism is also present in both instances: “Lady España” is the name of the ferry that takes the shipyard workers to the mainland and “Balanzas Blanco” is the name of the not so balanced scales in Blanco’s factory.
Immigrants are portrayed in the two films, but with a different point of view. The Russian of Mondays in the Sun speaks an accented Spanish and acts like one more of the group. While Khaled (Tarik Rmili), the Arab in The Good Boss, says to Blanco in perfect Spanish: “Don’t give me any of that family crap. Look at my skin. I’m not your son.”
The role of women is one of the major differences between the two films. If in 2002 the only woman with a substantial part is a factory worker, Ana (Nieve de Medina), in a nuanced performance; in 2022 women have taken over even in the company store thanks, or despite, #MeToo. A secretary keeps her job, although she had an affair with her own boss—also not a good one—, while his wife retaliates with the hunk of the assembly line, the Arab immigrant mentioned above. The young intern of choice is into porn, and at the surprising ending, Blanco’s wife and his young paramour give him his due comeuppance.
Granted that the two films belong to different genres; Mondays in the Sun is a serious drama and has the feeling of a documentary, especially in the opening sequence. While The Good Boss is a dark comedy, a satire of the “new” Spain.
A. O. Scott in his review of Mondays in the Sun, described Bardem’s performance as that of graceful bull, “with his heavy brow and dented nose” (New York Times, March 27, 2003). He also sports a cropped haircut and a full, black beard. Twenty years later, Bardem, in cool glasses, has had his nose fixed, his hair is soft, gray and beautifully coiffed. Although in both instances his mere physical presence, facial expressions and potent voice carry the films. As a female viewer and a Spaniard, I feel bad for the first character, but not for the second who has made his own bed and at the end has to lie on it.