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Bardems unite for ‘Alacrán enamorado’

Santiago A. Zannou takes his cast to the limit for a tale of rage, racism and romance

Boxing trainer Carlos Bardem helps neo-Nazi pupil Álex González in Alacrán enamorado. Ampliar foto
Boxing trainer Carlos Bardem helps neo-Nazi pupil Álex González in Alacrán enamorado.

Carlomonte is a retired fighter and an alcoholic, aged around 50. He weighs over 100 kilos, he has a South American face and a voice as deep as a cavern: “Right, Rocky, surprise me. Let’s see what you can do. Close your elbows. OK, OK, OK… You don’t know how to shadowbox.”

The wiry guy he is directing at the other end of the ring is Julián, 27, a shaven-headed neo-Nazi who is as light, fast and poisonous as a scorpion. “Hey! Where you are going?” Carlomonte hollers after him. “The ring is for boxers. The ground is enough for you.”

“Cut!” shouts director Santiago A. Zannou. “Very good, Carlos! You look like, like… you’re giving it your all!”

We’re on the set of the movie Alacrán enamorado (or, Scorpion lover) with Carlos Bardem, the actor who plays Carlomonte. The brother of Oscar-winner Javier Bardem (who also has a small role), and also the author of the novel on which the film is based, Carlos comes forward to greet us, and introduces the man playing Julián, Álex González, who is on the ground doing push-ups. They soon begin another take along the same lines in which Carlomonte tells Julián to start skipping. “Put my gloves on, for fuck’s sake, I’m not tired!” Julián yells after slogging his guts out. Before starting to film he had already taken a rope and begun jumping in order to come to the scene a “little bit tired.” “Today we’re giving it our all,” shouts Zannou.

Nine months later, we learn that what we saw was no film shoot, but a battlefield. González explains: “Santiago’s method has to do with not having any of us being on firm ground. For a year-and-a-half, since the audition, I haven’t stepped on firm ground. Not once.”

In the film, which is released across Spain on Friday, Carlos Bardem plays a trainer who has just seen the fighter his pupil González might one day become. Javier Bardem plays a sinister intellectual who spreads violence into the diminutive brains of a group of young rebels. Judith Diakhate is the Latin American immigrant with whom Julián falls in love, and Miguel Ángel Silvestre, recently seen in Pedro Almodóvar’s I’m So Excited, plays the dark side of the main character — the neo-Nazi who sees his “brother” abandoning the pack and leaving him all alone.

The idea behind Alacrán enamorado started to grow in 2007, during the presentation of Bardem’s novel at the Ocho y Medio bookstore in Madrid. González, whom he knew by sight from his gym, where they both practiced boxing, came along and Bardem signed his copy of the book with the words: “With much love, you look like the character of Julián. Ha ha ha.” Some time later, when the project seemed to be going ahead, Bardem bumped into him in Los Angeles, where González was filming X-Men: First Class, in which he played Riptide. He made him take off his shirt on the street and filmed him shadowboxing on his cellphone. He sent the video to Zannou, with whom he had been working on the script.

Preparation was tough. Before starting to shoot, Zannou invited Álex, Miguel Ángel and Elio Toffana, who play the three wild youngsters in the film, to spend four days together in his 30-square-meter home. He put mattresses on the floor and woke them up with songs such as Invincible by Muse. They had breakfast together, trained together and watched videos together. “They called me little Guardiola,” says Zannou, who won a Goya in 2009 for his movie El truco del manco. “We had to generate trust, because later, in the film, you are creating something very powerful and visceral.”

He says at the start of “the process” he decided to bathe himself in his own blood, a ritual that certain tribes in Benin, from where his father hails, do before going into battle. In front of the mirror in his house he made a cut in each shoulder and another in his chest. “I needed to feel like a warrior,” he says.

Zannou spent the seven-week shoot with blood pressure of 170 over 110. The actors were not much less relaxed. “Sometimes I went up to speak to them and they were the characters,” Zannou remembers. “That frightens you. They were a long way from the people who they are. The system was about generating tension the whole time. There were lots of blow-ups. The nice thing is they happened in front of the camera. We suffered low points once in a while. But we did it like soldiers: we built it up among us all. We were like Tom Berenger in the movie Platoon. With 19 bullets in the body and still moving forward. Because we could go on.” And like that to the end of the film. “As many times as they shoot you, there is a strength that makes you get up.”