Inspired by real laid-off shipyard workers desperately clinging to a sense of personal dignity while entering their third year on the government dole, the melancholy Spanish import "Mondays in the Sun" is thick with powerful, understated, deeply empathetic performances -- and it needs them. It's hard to feel sorry for a bunch of welfare cases who sit around drinking and barely even trying to find new jobs.
Perhaps not being familiar with the particulars of the Spanish economy provides a major disadvantage to fully understanding the characters that populate this film, which swept the 2002 Goya awards. But writer-director Fernando Leon de Aranoa doesn't seem to provide any reason beyond pure frustration and lack of momentum for his handful of sad sack laborers to spend much of their lives in a bar.
Bearded, burly, somewhat unscrupulous but full of pride and wasted intelligence, Santa (played by the impeccably poignant Javier Bardem) is a cauldron of quietly boiling indignation who exhausts his energy tilting against the system and denying his own accountability. In the course of the movie, he applies for not one job, yet he continues to fight a vandalism charge years after smashing up a streetlight during a strike -- on the grounds that the violence was the company's fault for enraging him.
His younger pal Jose (Luis Tosar) has been bitterly living off his wife's wages as a canning factory fish-gutter, and she's just about had it with her lay-about spouse. Middle-aged Lino (José Ángel Egido) is the only one among them still actively looking for work -- and his bad luck may stem from the stink of desperation as he dyes his hair and borrows his son's clothes, hoping to fit in with the 20- to 35-year-old job market competition.
But despite this unsympathetic laziness, the actors strike such a compassionate chord in finding these men's souls that they earn the benefit of the doubt -- for a while.
While never neglecting the down-and-out atmosphere of the now destitute ex-shipbuilding town, director Leon lingers quietly on the faces of his actors, exploring every nuance of their angry, volatile dissatisfaction and self-pity, digging deeply and with determination to uncover their broken spirits. While Tosar and Egido eke out volumes of pain, resentment, sadness and tentative but directionless hope, Bardem ("Before Night Falls," "The Dancer Upstairs") stands out from the bunch with his dark but kind, heavily lidded but smiling eyes and his deflated swaggering. Like a younger, Spanish Robert Duvall, it's not just that his performance is deep-rooted and subtly magnetic, it's that the mechanics of his acting are completely invisible.
While Tosar and Bardem do earn surprising empathy for their resentful, disheartened characters -- especially once Santa starts seeking closure to this chapter in his life after the suicide of an gin-soaked friend -- it's an uphill battle since they share the screen with three other characters who haven't given up hope.
Besides the pavement-pounding Lino, there's Reina (Enrique Villén), considered a sorry sell-out by our antiheroes for taking a night-watchman job at a local soccer field, and Rico (Joaquín Climent), who took his severance from the shipyard and opened the bar they all mope around in. (How he's still in business isn't clear since these guys seem to be his only customers.)
If "Mondays in the Sun" provided more justification for Santa's languor or more motivation for him to stop blaming the world for problems he brings upon himself, there wouldn't be much cause for the lack of sympathy that derails the story. I appreciate that Bardem enjoys the challenge of playing someone so willfully flawed, but there's less enjoyment for us having to spend two hours with a guy who thinks he's entitled to a hand-out just because he thinks he's been wronged by losing his job.
A scene in which Santa reads a bedtime story to a little boy he's babysitting sums up the inherent problem better than I could: The story he reads is the fable of the grasshopper who plays all summer and stores no food, then when winter comes expects an ant who worked all summer gathering food to share. Santa's reaction? He goes on a tirade about what a bastard the ant is for saying no.