The Spanish world premiere that made the most waves at this year’s San Sebastian Festival was not a film but a series, “La Mesías,” written, directed and produced by Javier Ambrossi and Javier Calvo.
“A masterpiece,” proclaimed Spanish website Cineconñ; national newspaper El Mundo greeted it as the first work of maturity from hugely unconventional auteurs.
Now bound for Mipcom, where the series receives a market screening, “La Mesías” says much about the ambitions of its creators and its backer, Movistar Plus.
In 2017, Telefónica-owned Movistar Plus, Spain’s biggest SVOD-pay TV player, rocked the San Sebastian Festival with “The Plague,” then the biggest series ever made in Spain.
“La Mesías” follows Ambrossi and Calvo’s overseas breakout “Veneno,” which was picked up by HBO Max for the U.S. market, and made Ambrossi and Calvo among the most-courted young showrunners in Europe.
“We’ve had to say ‘no’ to a lot of things, to big offers, a lot of money from and outside Spain, to keep faithful to ourselves, and remember we wanted to make ‘La Mesías’ the way we wanted to make it,” Ambrossi recalls.
In a first phase of overseas expansion, spanning 2015-18, Netflix, and, indeed, Movistar Plus launched ambitious series such as “Money Heist” and “Dark” (both Netflix) and “The Plague.”
These days, however, facing a global streamer investment down-turn and weak economic environment, “buyers are playing it safe at the moment,” Keshet Intl.’s Anke Stoll said at June’s Conecta Fiction TV forum in Spain.
Movistar Plus, in contrast, has stayed the course, giving some of Spain’s biggest auteurs full creative freedom, releasing, for instance, 2020’s “Riot Police,” a compassionate take on members of a special intervention unit from director Rodrigo Sorogoyen.
“We will not vary that,” says Domingo Corral, Movistar Plus director of fiction and entertainment of its bet for big and bold.
“Movistar understood from the first that this was a big auteur series. There aren’t that many [series] that enjoy that creative freedom and are yet mainstream. ‘La Mesías’ has both those elements,” says Ambrossi.
A family-framed psychological mystery thriller, “La Mesías” begins with thirty something Enric, who literally wets himself watching a viral video of Stella Maris, a Christian pop band led by his sisters.
Memories flood back of his own childhood and youth, scarred by his parents’ religious fanaticism, climaxing in mother Montse channeling her narcissism into declaring herself the daughter of God.
“Montse is looking for a good father for her children who’s at her level, and she thinks she’s called for great things,” says Ambrossi. “So she ends up creating a direct relation with the greatest father of all, God, in her opinion.”
But Enric escaped the family. Yet “you can’t escape trauma, it’s part of you, but you can evolve,” says Calvo. Though deeply traumatized, Enric sets out to save his sisters, still locked up in the family home.
Enric is not gay but the shadow of an LGBTQ experience falls over the series.
“As we built ‘La Mesías,’ we realized we were making a series about having to leave home. LGBTQ collective members have to often to leave their homes or villages, breaking with their families, to find freedom and an identity,” Ambrossi reflected at a San Sebastian press conference.
But “La Mesias” also turns on the return: “the such brutal sense of rootlessness when you go back, asking where you’re from and where are you going,” he added.
Ambrossi and Calvo have “a level of artistic ambition, authenticity, their own voice, a total ability to render accessible the toughest of issues; nobody manages emotion better,” says Corral.
“That combination means that in watching ‘La Mesías,’ you sense you’re seeing an original, unique, different series.”
The series’ intense seven episodes weigh in mostly just over an hour each. The story’s timeline hops from 2013 to the 1980s, when Enric and younger sister Irene are kids, to around 1997, catching them in their late teens. The production shot totally on location, mostly at 30 rural sites outside Barcelona. The series featured 170 characters and 3,800 extras.
Most vital, says Corral, was the shoot’s length: 25 1/2 weeks, split in two blocks in Spain, separated by an interval, and one week in India.
José Luis Rebordinos, San Sebastian Festival director, says, “When I watch ‘La Mesías’ in a movie theater, I’m watching a film; when I watch the film on a television or on a device, I think that they are not the right places to watch it ‘La Mesías’ is cinema in its purest state.”
The scenes set in the past were shot in 16mm, capturing the impressionism of memory; digital camera work for 2013 brings a painful present into sharp relief.
“This is a highly artistic, auteurist series, but a big production made at the highest level of production standards,” says Maria Valenzuela, general manager at Movistar Plus+ International.
“We’re trying to make completely different propositions, and bring them into the mainstream,” she adds.
Valenzuela cites Paco León and Anna R. Costa “Arde Madrid,” a scripted series shot in black and white about Ava Gardner’s stay in Madrid, seen from the POV of her house servants, and “The Left-Handed Son,” a conflictive mother-son relation drama which won at 2023’s Canneseries and reached broad audiences on Movistar Plus, she says. Both were first TV series for their creators.