“In 1992, Spain went to her Baile de Debutante. Our country was presented to the global scene,” Alberto Rodriguez, the director of Unit 7 (Grupo 7), tells me over beer and appetizers at the Chelsea Hotel. The film is about a group of cops who break all the rules to clean up Spain’s ghettos in the 1980s. Bearded, in a dark navy coat, Alberto has a seaman’s wrinkles the way directors in Southern Europe should look from time in the wind and sun. His English is potentially adequate, but the translator steps in. “Drug areas in major cities were supposed to disappear for the ’92 Olympics. They were not aided or rehabilitated. They were eradicated!” she says, and Alberto curves his hand hyperbolically.
Mario Casas, who plays one of the four corrupt cops that make up Unit 7, sits silently opposite of me in a hoodie — the signature movie star outfit — sipping his gin and tonic. His body language, though reserved and self-satisfied, is somewhat supportive of Alberto. Mario plays Angel who, together with the rougher, more mature Rafael (Antonio de la Torre), run Unit 7 the-end-justifies-the-means way while they get Rolex-comfortable with drug kick-backs. “Who lived here?” Mario asks, waving his finger in the air, referring to the Chelsea Hotel.
“Everybody. Patti Smith to start with,” I say. “She has a book out that covers those days,” I add, but Mario retreats to his drink.
“Let’s talk Unit 7,” I say to Alberto, an established director (7 Virgins, After) and I start by questioning his beautification of the ghettos in Seville. During the first 10 minutes of the movie, Mario chases drug dealers on superbly rotten, rusty-brown terraces filled with sufi-soul-shaped chimneys in a violent choreography that might have been an anti-James Bond video game.
“These were magnificent buildings from the 16th century. All discarded,” Alberto explains. “I tried to use that artistically, but we are still paying today for the way we hastily and at-any-cost cleaned up whole regions in order to be seen as a global player.”
The 2004 Olympics and the Greek aftermath bring a bitter smile to my face. “Your movie is based on true stories,” I say. “The closing scene has real footage of King Juan Carlos announcing the international Expo in Seville. Your movie is a protest.”
“You got my movie,” Alberto says, confidently.
“Getting rid of ghettos before international events is a global phenomenon. Have you read Mike Davis’ Planet of Slums?” I ask him. He has not. I write a couple of Davis’ books on my business card and hand it to him. He puts my card in his pocket with a child’s smile.
I turn to Mario, who’s still sips his drink in that “road-trip” beaten movie star way. “Before Unit 7 joins the dark side, Rafael saves your [Angel's] life,” I say. “And yet, when you want to buy him a drink, to thank him, he shies away. He gives you the I’m-just-doing-my-job snub. From that point on you are hooked on him.”
“I discussed it with Alberto,” Mario says, throwing him a glance. “Angel is insecure, he needs validation.”
“When you finally manage to get him to the bar you are both uncomfortable, practically incapable of speaking,” I say. ”Rafael can’t even look at the photo of your child. You drink like schoolgirls with guns. You’re silently falling for each other. At the end of that night you take a wasted Rafael to his home and put him tenderly to bed. For a second there you stare at him sleeping.”
Mario tilts his head and takes a sip.
“Absolutely,” Alberto mumbles.
“Okay,” says Mario, and looks straight at me. First time. “But then they drift apart,” he adds. “Their moral stands change.”
“There is love and wariness that carries throughout the movie,” I say, and I’m ready to back off—for now. ”Your details of corruption and extermination are at times disturbingly tender,” I tell Alberto. “When Rafael gives the junkie he fell for a pair of earrings, she thanks him by saying: ‘I don’t know if the are real or not, but they are pretty.’ It’s a heartbreaking scene in a heartbreaking movie.”
“Unit 7 is not a black or white story,” Alberto explains. “Like life. We cut corners all the time. It’s not always easy to know what’s right, or who’s right and who’s wrong.”
“During fights, you use male nakedness as a form of humiliation. Why?” I ask Alberto.
“It’s based on facts,” Alberto says. “It was the culture on the streets at the time. When the ghetto fights back, they make Unit 7 go naked through a mock-religious litany.”
Staying real, true to the culture and history, can hurt the commercial potential of a cop-action film, disappoint the fans’ hope for a one-up from the latest genre hit. Even the plot at times gets too complicated in order to capture the twists and turns of the era. But Alberto seems okay with that. He bets on the docudrama in developing memory-lasting characters, even if the story has clichés, as real life does. The flawless acting of Casas and Torre is on the same plane with Leonardo Dicaprio and Matt Damon in The Departed (2006). Angel and Rafael play their bromance well. They jump together on the bad side, challenge each other as their ethics change, but at the pivotal moment, when the ghetto corners them, they frat-pack in a two-men suicide mission that feels borderline Plata Quemada (Burnt Money, 2000).
“You are willing to take the bullet for your bud. Am I missing something?” I ask Mario. “Your relationship with Rafael may drift apart for a moment, but does a 360. You end up at the same bar, equally phobic and embarrassed in each other’s presence, silently codependent; just the way you started.”
Mario’s box office smile comes through — another first. I can tell that he’s about to give in to my full-circle take on their relationship. “You are right,” he says, locking on me. “You own the movie.”
Unit 7 may win, or not, but at what cost? The fact that government corruption can beat the streets has by default some fatalism in it. It’s inevitable. If it weren’t Unit 7, it would have been Unit 8. “There is so much poetic justice at the end,” Alberto says. Angel and Rafael are aftermaths, collateral damage adopted and used by the system but at a personal level they are discarded and isolated.
Coming from Greece, even deeper in the abyss that’s pulling in Spain, I have one last question. In the universal fight between man and the corrupt machine, I offer Mario and Alberto four alternatives — all showcased at Tribeca via different movies: You can flee (Una Noche). You can fight back (Headshot). You can give in, like the detectives in Unit 7, or even give up (Wasted Youth, screened parallel to the festival). “What would you say to a young Greek at such a crossroad?” I ask.
“You stay and fight back,” Mario says, hitting the table with his fist. And I’m done.
They have to go to their screening. Mario offers me a Bronx arm-hug. He insists that I “nailed” the movie, and Alberto holds our handshake that extra second. The interpreter and the publicist kiss me on both cheeks, the way we Europeans do. They want to pay for the food and drinks “because you’re Greek.” I joke about the Spanish bond yields in March, but it’s lost in translation.