Sunday, 22 March 2020

TV review: Money Heist, part 1, Netflix (2017)

I’ve ascribed this show to Netflix even though, in actual fact, these first episodes were made by a TV station named Antena 3, which is headquartered near the Spanish capital of Madrid. In making the show available on Netflix, however, certain adjustments were made to the episodes, so I have labelled this season accordingly.

The show is great fun and the writing is excellent. You follow the fortunes of a group of robbers who hold up the Mint in Madrid (the Spanish title is ‘La casa de papel’, which translates directly as “the house of paper”). You are also given the viewpoints of some of the hostages taken during the attack, and those of some of the police who respond to it. In the first part of the show there are 13 episodes. Just before I started watching this show, part 3 was announced and was talked about on Twitter.

The robbers all wear red jumpsuits and get their hostages to wear the same gear (a plot device that was used in Spike Lee’s wonderful 2006 heist movie ‘Inside Man’, though in that film the jumpsuits were dark blue). In ‘Money Heist’ there’s another twist on the same ploy as all the robbers wear masks made to look like the face of Salvador Dali, the 20th-century Spanish surrealist painter.

Thematically, the show is about inequality and Capital. The guy running the show operates outside the Mint in a Madrid building and he’s called the Professor (Alvaro Morte). Apart from him, each of the robbers uses the name of a city to identify him- or herself. The Professor’s grandfather was a supporter of the partisans in WWII, which puts him (the grandfather) firmly on the left, politically speaking. The Professor is also a progressive and there is one scene in episode 13 where he and Berlin (Pedro Alonso, who is outstanding) are singing an old song from the era titled ‘Bella ciao’. The robbers in another episode sing this song while celebrating a moment of success in their adventure, jumping around in their red suits and waving their arms in the air. It is an anti-fascist song.

But the critique works both ways. The robbers have hostages who naturally enough are not glad to be caught up in the heist. The message is that the oppressed become the oppressors, and so the film modulates a traditional left-wing pose, taking aim with its most penetrating barbs at such groups as the Soviets, who took control of Russia in 1917. We all know how that experiment turned out: untold suffering, material want, and death on a grand scale. Given Spain’s history – the civil war that started there in the 1930s was a prelude to WWII, and attracted Nazi support in the form of bombing raids (Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ was made in 1937 as an homage to the victims of such an attack) – it is hardly surprising that a show such as ‘Money Heist’ would be made there. The filmmakers are of two minds about Capital and about the revanchist push that always accompanies its success.

The best parts are in the spaces between tonic events – in the downtime, when not much is happening in terms of the genre the forms of which the film is made to obey – where people talk to one another, have liaisons, or make friends. And in flashbacks that point to the months prior to the day of the attack, on days during which the robbers planned it and socialised together in a house on a property outside the city. There’s a terrific scene in one episode where the robbers stage a “hostage of the month” ceremony, getting their charges to applaud a timid man who helps them printing money. It is ripe with signification and is emblematic of the filmmakers’ inventiveness.

In ep 11 you begin to feel things will start to flag when the robbers stage their impromptu celebration and when a hostage named Arturo (Enrique Arce) devises another of his wild schemes aimed at freedom, but things quickly take a new turn, keeping the suspense alive.

Apart from Alonso, I was impressed by Alba Flores (Nairobi, an expert in counterfeiting). Maria Pedraza, who plays a hostage named Alison Parker, is also good. All up, this show is worth watching if you like oddball genre films. It’s not just Hollywood that can make a formulaic vehicle shine.

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