Mainstream movies seem to have stepped away from political intrigues of late, partly because premium cable has had that covered (either by House of Cards or Veep, depending on your mood), and partly because a jobbing screenwriter stands little chance of matching the increasingly outlandish developments unfolding at present across the nightly news. The field is wide open, then, for Rodrigo Sorogoyen's smart, knotty drama The Candidate, a film that initially looks to have hobbled itself twice over by taking as its backdrop not just politics, but the fundamentally unsexy world of Spanish regional politics. Sorogoyen and co-writer Isabel Peña drop us in at the deep end via one of several well-attended and well-lubricated buffets on this gravy train; from the off, they're aware there are elements of politics you and I don't know about (and which the political classes rely on us not knowing about). We soon sense, however, that the film's focal point, the grandly named Don Manuel Lopez-Vidal (Antonio de la Torre), isn't the upright statesman played by Robert Redford in the American film of this name - he hasn't the innocence to lose - rather fully immersed in the graft, dirt and corruption going down in his sunny coastal neck of the woods. We get a brisk, potent whiff of this before a financial scandal breaks that threatens to implicate him; as he slithers around in damage-control mode, we learn exactly what he's up to his neck in, and how terminal this is likely to be. "In politics, you have to improvise," Manu is heard to insist at any early stage in his spiral, a justification for both his skulduggery and his efforts to cover it up; Sorogoyen and Peña show us what happens when a powerbroker is forced to go comprehensively off-book.
They arrive here from a position of cynicism, bordering on outrage: The Candidate is a film that knows one reason the world is in the state it's in is that our politicos are now spending more time than ever covering their behinds. Its hook is that Manu is but a middleman - a regional vice-president in his party - which means he has some distance to fall, but also leverage on those immediately above him in the food chain. The bulk of the action here is that jostling for position that follows in the wake of any political earthquake; it's a film for and of a moment when each jolt of breaking news threatens the certainty of those who've spent the best part of thirty years getting rich indeed off the system. It needed a strong central performance to pull us through this mire, and it gets one. de la Torre has a faint air of cologned council-chambers propriety - he has the right haircut and the supportive family - but also never shakes the impression of a thug squeezed into a suit, or more precisely yet: of a thug who believes the suit confers some respectability upon his thuggishness. Note how urgently he's seen to dress when the police raid his home, and how rattled and vulnerable he appears once he dresses down in the second half. The clothes both maketh the man, and - presumably bought with dirty money - suggest potential weakspots. At every turn of this clever plot, this louse of a man could come away with everything or nothing, and it's that which hooks us: as in any form of politics, the future's up for grabs, and Don Manuel is such a savvy player the film entertains the terrible prospect that he might just win this game. For all the meetings we sit in, it's a film of constant motion, propelled by Sorogoyen's sinuous camerawork and Olivier Arson's antsy electro score. And for all the (misdirected) wealth the film puts on screen, it refuses to settle into pretty pictures, calling out the corruption of its own universe deep into a remarkable closing scene. Yet nothing about The Candidate will strike the 2019 viewer as far-fetched. And it explains a lot.
The Candidate is now available to rent through Amazon Prime.