Some movies sit tidily in their assigned genres, or at most bring in
two together. Then there are the films like Common Wealth:
a film that gleefully wreaks havoc with our preconceptions. Common Wealth (original Spanish title: La
comunidad) slides effortlessly between genres, so we're never
quite sure when to laugh and when to cringe; the effect is almost
surreal and is undeniably effective.
Common Wealth starts out on a mildly comic note, as we meet
Julia (Carmen Maura), a real estate agent
who's struggling to sell a lavishly-appointed apartment in an
otherwise run-down building full of decidedly odd neighbors. At first
she considers herself lucky to be able to pretend she's the apartment
owner in order to enjoy a few nights of luxury living there before
it's sold, but then things really heat up when she stumbles across a
secret having to do with the apartment below... and discovers that
she may be a target for her greedy (and perhaps murderous) neighbors.
The film's opening credits set the tone for the film, with a
distinctive and bizarre presentation that's quite effective in
generating interest in what's to come. Humor shifts between
"ordinary" comedy and black comedy of a very dark hue, so
dark as to blend seamlessly into horror in many instances. At the
same time, there's also a suspense plot developing around what Julia
knows, what the neighbors know, what the neighbors know about what
Julia knows, and what Julia knows about what the neighbors know. Got
that? No? Well, in the film it all makes perfect sense, in a twisted
and bizarre way, and the combinations of who-knows-what and
who-did-what get increasingly complicated and deadly.
The performances here are certainly key to the success of the film;
it's no surprise to learn that Carmen Maura won the Goya Award (the
Spanish equivalent to the Academy Award) for Best Actress for her
performance here. (Common Wealth also snagged the Goya for
Best Supporting Actor and Best Special Effects.) She portrays Julia
as just the right kind of character for a weird and slightly
disturbing film like this: realistic and sympathetic enough that we
believe in her and can relate to her, tough and hard-bitten enough to
go through with all that the story demands of her, and just greedy
enough that we understand completely why she won't walk away from an
increasingly deadly situation.
Common Wealth's balance of dark humor and suspense is a tricky
one to balance, and although the film doesn't sustain itself
perfectly all the way to the end, it almost gets there in perfect
shape. In the last quarter or so of the film, all the masks come off:
we know where every character stands, and the only question left,
really, is who is going to (literally) be left standing when the
credits roll. Since much of the weird charm of the film is in the
intrigue and suspicion felt by all the characters who can't quite be
sure what the other character knows, the ending lacks a bit of the
spark that's in the rest of the film. It's still a reasonable
conclusion, though, with a few nice touches thrown in and perhaps a
twist that viewers might not expect.
Common Wealth appears in what looks like the advertised 2.35:1
aspect ratio, but at least in the credits, it's evident that there's
missing information on each side of the image, as many of the names
in the credits are partially cut off. When it comes to the film
itself, everything looks in order, though; I didn't notice any
indication that the framing was off.
The transfer is in widescreen anamorphic, and overall looks very
good. Colors and contrast are handled extremely well, which is
essential given the film's many dark, creepy scenes. The print looks
clean, with no flaws or dirt appearing in the image. The only thing
that's holding it back from a higher video score is that there's a
moderate amount of grain in the image throughout the film: not so
much that it's particularly noticeable, but enough to soften the
The English subtitles are optional. They're in easy-to-read white
lettering and capture the dialogue fairly accurately (though a few of
the obscenities get lost in the shuffle, I noticed.)
The original Spanish Dolby 5.1 soundtrack does an excellent job on
all counts. It's crisp and clean, with the dialogue sounding natural
and easy to understand, and the overall feel of the track is rich and
full. What's more, the surround channels are used extremely
effectively, with special effects being placed in distinct audio
locations around the room. There's one scene in particular whose
sound design made my skin crawl.
A dubbed Spanish 2.0 track is also included. No, that's not a typo:
in addition to the original Spanish (Castillano) soundtrack, there's
another that is dubbed in so-called "neutral Spanish" (a
made-up homogenized accent that sounds vaguely Latin-American) which
sounds absolutely awful. Fortunately, this is not the default
setting. I'm surprised that the studio even bothered with this
option, as the original dialogue is already in normal, "neutral"
Spanish as spoken in Spain; the characters don't have any strong
regional accents at all and are perfectly easy to understand.
Optional English subtitles are included, and can be selected either
from the menu or on the fly.
The menus are nicely designed, with an introductory option to view
them in Spanish or English.
Several special features are included. The "making-of
featurette" runs 25 minutes and though it's primarily
promotional in nature, it does include some moderately interesting
moments, for instance with director Álex de la Iglesia giving
his thoughts about the film. It's in the original Spanish with
optional English subtitles, as are the four minutes of deleted
scenes. There's also an early short film by de la Iglesia called
"Killer Mirindas," which offers nine minutes of utter and
complete weirdness. Lastly, we get a photo gallery and trailers for
Common Wealth, Torrente 2, Dying of Laughter,
Golden Balls, and God Is on the Air.
Even though I thought the film was fantastic, it has actually been
quite difficult to write this review, as Common Wealth is a
film that basically has to be seen to be appreciated. It's
delightfully different and bizarrely appealing, and if you have a
taste for black humor and clever storytelling, then this off-beat
film is certainly for you. I was certainly entranced and fully
entertained from start to finish. Highly recommended.