The portrait isn't a heroic one, as these men and women attempt to maintain a sense of dignity in the face of self-hate: A factory worker showers herself in aerosol deodorant, trying to mask the smell of the fish she packs; a middle-aged man dyes his graying hair black and raids his son's closet for younger-looking clothes for his parade of job interviews; Santa refuses to pay a fine for a streetlamp that he broke during a labor dispute.
Yet there is warm humor here as well: No longer able to afford tickets to a soccer match, the men gather at a construction site that overlooks the stadium. Their view of the goal obstructed, they must wait until they hear the roar of the crowd to celebrate a score. Desperate for cash, Santa negotiates with a friend's daughter to take over her babysitting gigs, invites his buddies to join him to enjoy the posh digs and then squabbles with them over splitting the paltry pay. "We're helping," they insist.
Throughout, Bardem ("The Dancer Upstairs," another politically charged drama out of last year's Sundance fest) is a potent presence, his indignant rage barely contained beneath the surface -- he lashes out at what would seem politically benign, the fable about the grasshopper and the ant. Yet he is fiercely loyal to his friends, even those who signed a severance package with the shipyard rather than protest the mass firings. The role is as notable for Bardem's compelling performance as its social agenda.
Meanwhile, director Fernando Leon de Aranoa ("Familia," "Barrio") has not glamorized these men's environments, shooting on location and keeping intact the grungy walls, cracking paint and piles of trash that characterize the spaces in which they hang out and live. Yet he infuses his text with profound visual metaphors: a mirrored reflection of a clock, ticking backwards; a flickering, ultimately extinguished entryway light; an Australia-shaped water stain on the ceiling. These things symbolize not only the men's desperation at their current situation but their hope for a better future. Starring Javier Bardem, Luis Tosar, Jose Angel Egido, Nieve de Medina, Enrique Villen and Celso Bugallo. Directed and written by Fernando Leon de Aranoa. Produced by Elias Querejeta P.C. A Lions Gate release. Drama. Spanish-language; subtitled. Rated R for language. Running time: 113 min.