The nasty boss comes in countless guises in movies. Gordon Gekko, the arrogant Mephisto of greed in Wall Street. The weasel-like narcissist David Brent of The Office† Jesse Eisenberg as constipated, self-made bastard Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network† Or my personal favorite: Bill Lumbergh in Office Spacea boomer boss whose quasi-egalitarian, laid-back attitude masks bottomless sadism.
Bosses very often turn out to be bastards. Logical, because in the cinema there are many more frustrated employees than satisfied bosses, and film is an empathetic medium. But it becomes really interesting when you have learned something about power after such a film, as in the black comedy El buen patron† At the very least, Spanish director Fernando León de Aranoa and actor Javier Bardem have here added a memorable specimen to the hall of fame of degenerate bosses: Blanco Libras director Blanco. The film strikes a chord in Spain: it received no fewer than 20 nominations for Goya’s, the Spanish Oscars, and garnered six, including best film, director, actor and script. If Spanish Oscar entry showed El buen patron Almodovars Madres Paralelas behind them.
It is therefore an unparalleled wryness one man show by Javier Bardem. He once started his acting career as an oily underpants model in a sex comedy Jamon Jamon, in later years he knew how to deal with silent, poetic heroes. But if he plays a villain, then you really sit up. Bardem doesn’t have one type, he puts busy neurotics like Raoul Silva in skyfall just as sweet as the dead Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Menan unfathomably dull monster that won him an Oscar.
Blanco is something completely different again: a warm-blooded patriarch who gradually peels off into a reptile. It is Bardem’s third film with Fernando León de Aranoa, director of socio-political films. In 2002, Bardem played a rebellious member of a group of fired dock workers in his Oscar nominee Los lunes al sol† The tone was already melancholy and witty; León de Aranoa shakes his head and accepts the absurdity and injustice of this world.
In Escobar (2018) Bardem is disconcerting as a dirty Colombian coke baron who grunts like a pig at his mistress Virginia Vallejo, played by his wife Penélope Cruz. As an unreliable witness, she is hilarious: in the picture Escobar usually does the opposite of what the enamored Vallejo tells. In this way, León de Aranoa reduces the vulgar Pablo Escobar, who in the popular imagination has become a kind of tragic anti-hero, to the sadistic murderer he really was.
As a character, manufacturer Blanco is in El buen patron much more ambivalent, and more interesting. Blanco does not see himself as a boss, but as the father of his staff, he argues in the beginning, when his scale factory has made it to the finalist of the regional prize for excellent business management. Blanco wants to win that prize. The jury will come by soon, but the problems keep piling up. A fighter must be in line. José from accounting is furious about his dismissal and stands in front of the factory gate in permanent protest. Chef and childhood friend Miralles makes a mess because his wife commits adultery.
The scale is the central metaphor. The situation around the factory becomes unbalanced, imbalance intensifies imbalance and Blanco’s half-hearted attempts to put his weight in the balance only make matters worse. Blanco sees it as his task to balance all interests: of the company, employees, family, himself. But when he is really under pressure, the sharp claws and teeth of power emerge and the paterfamilias turns out to be a control freak and an opportunist. El buen patron is a cleverly dosed moral disguise.
Javier Bardem’s charisma guarantees that you as a viewer will go along with Blanco for a long time. It’s like with Michael Corleone in The Godfather, who, through a fateful chain, transforms seemingly necessary decisions from a caring young man to a cold-hearted conspirator. You know his family and his own life are at stake, so you follow him step by step into the moral quagmire. Tragic what power – or responsibility – demands from poor Michael. Until he coolly kills his own brother, slams the doors in front of us and we see what he has become – with our consent. Or was he always that cold predator?
That is also the process of El buen patron, but in a darkly comic version: only a regional prize for business excellence is at stake. Yet even here at the end you wonder why you went along with this slut for so long, mistaking his savior for commitment and devotion to duty. Maybe because Blanco is a narcissist, the first one to believe in his own lies. And Bardem makes sure we do that with him. Blanco’s privilege soon becomes apparent: see the obviousness with which he summons his old handyman on Sunday to repair his swimming pool or the furtive look on an employee’s buttocks. Anyway, that fired Jose or that crybaby Miralles would drive everyone mad, right?
Gradually, doubt creeps in. Does Blanco take childhood friend Miralles to a nightclub to cheer him up or give him an extra rub that he’s the beta male? Does he want to help or control people? And that intern Liliane, daughter of a good friend, with whom he dives into bed? That’s probably not the first either. Still, Blanco himself has not lost all his credit in the final. He does it well, maybe he is just very suitable as a boss. Play nice weather when you can, ruthlessly when you have to. That makes this film something more than a comedy, like The Godfather is more than a crime movie. In their own way, both are also a portrait of power.
A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper of June 1, 2022