Dir. Manuel MartinCuenca. Sp. 2005. 115mins.

Three sets of outsidersin Madrid, characters on the fringe of the accepted norm whether by choice orcircumstance, approach a crisis in the nicely-modulated and finely-acted HardTimes, Manuel Martin Cuenca's follow-up to The Weakness Of The Bolshevik.

Despite its defiantly sombretone, it should find a solid audience at home in Spain and may cross over totheatrical arthouse overseas, certainly propelled by Javier Camara's knockoutlead performance.

Although it's not entirelydownbeat, this is a slow-paced, adult film; that may limit its potential reach,but patient audiences will respond to the solid, ensemble cast and nuancedperformances from all leads, apart from the appeal of the universal emotions ittackles.

Golem's step back intoproduction (it's also handling sales) will undoubtedly attract major Goya awardsattention for the actors, and its reach could be as strong as Mondays In TheSun, although it lacks any leavening comic touch.

Reaction at the San Sebastianpress screening was mixed, possibly due to the film's politics and inparticular the saint-like character of Ana (Poza), an non-governmentalorganisation worker whose encounters with refugees are rather broadly drawn.

The connection between the charactersis Carlos (Xor Ona), a closed-off Cuban refugee who makes a living by smugglingcigars and, more dangerously, artwork from Cuba to Spain. One of his clients isthe wealthy Fabre (Echebarria), living unhappily with his wheelchair-bound wifeLaura (Watling), who is having a rather one-sided affair with Carlos.

Carlos's ex-lover is Ana,the NGO refugee worker whose teen son Gonzalo (Pedrosa) has suddenly decided toshut himself off from the world by remaining in his room.

And the final link is Carlos'sneighbour Mikel (Camara), a chess player who has come out of prison barely incontrol of his emotions. It is his character that is the most magnetic; everyscene involving Mikel is so finely-drawn and well-depicted that it almostunbalances the other stories.

As we meet them, Cuenca'scharacters are barely keeping a lid on their emotions - Ana, for example, feedsher energies into the refugees she meets until there is nothing left forherself. Hard Times watches them confront their demons; it is a wonderfulchamber piece, a showcase for Spanish acting talent at its finest.

Cuenca's downbeatperspective will make this a tough sell, but it is a rewarding and challengingfilm. At times there are some shaky moments; a third-act denouement involvingseparate violent incidents for all the main characters is a tough challenge forCuenca to pull off and still keep audiences onside.

But the film regains itsfooting, and if some of the stories may fade, Camara's pitch-perfect renditionof an ex-con's inner torment will linger in the memory.

Production companies
Loma Blanca

International sales

Executive producer
Fernando Victoria de Lecea

Fernando Victoria de Lecea
Pedro Zaratiegui

Alejandro Hernandez

David Carretero

Pedro Barbadillo

Main cast
Javier Camara
Nathalie Poza
Eman Xor Ona
Leonor Watling
Fernando Echebarria
Gonzalo Pedroza