At the basketball final of the 2000 Sydney Paralympics, one grumpy Australian coach watched Spain defeat Russia and take out the gold medal a little too effortlessly. Fuming, he later said that two or three players—from both the Spanish and Russian teams—could have been national league players.
He was right.
Weeks after the closing ceremony, Spanish journalist Carlos Ribagorda handed his medal back to the committee, revealing that he had forged documentation showing that he had an IQ of below 75. In fact, it was not only him—ten of the twelve players on the Spanish basketball team had absolutely no intellectual disability whatsoever. The coach responsible for the scandal—which resulted in all events for the intellectually disabled being cancelled at Athens—was only charged with fraud in 2013.
Champions is, in part, atonement for this incident, which is mentioned at about the three-quarter mark. Though it lingers and gives weight to the prejudice-busting this film sets out to do, the film remains a joyous affair which won massive critical acclaim, and was Spain’s entry to the 2019 Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film.
The protagonist of the film, Marco (Javier Gutiérrez), is infuriatingly arrogant. His self-obsession creates chaos in his work and married life; sauntering around in grey suits, he is constantly infuriated by the perceived stupidity of those around him. After he storms out of a major league basketball game, and has a very literal run-in with police, he is sentenced to a 90-day community service assignment as a coach for an intellectually disabled basketball team.
This film is touted everywhere as a feel-good film and proceeds much as you’d expect. Yes, there are slow motion shots and a sweeping orchestral score (one of the emotional reconciliations even takes place in a cloud of confetti), but despite this, the film does have a lot of soul—thanks to the exuberant and lovable members of the team.
Director Javier Fesser casted newcomers with real life disabilities, with each character possessing their own eccentricities: there’s Marín (Jesús Vidal), an aviation-loving hypochondriac; Juanma (José de Luna) the animal lover with a fear of water; and the feisty, witty Collantes (Gloria Ramos). The film is blatant in portraying Marco as a man in need of redemption (words like ‘mongoloid’ and ‘retard’ slip way too easily off his tongue) and through the deep wisdom and help of his team he achieves this. Athenea Mata is also radiant as his estranged wife, Sonia.
This is a sweet, uncomplicated film, a perfect opening night piece for the 2019 Moro Spanish Film Festival; and judging by the huge and happy crowd spilling out onto the street afterwards, it is getting the attention it deserves.
Champions will be showing at Cinema Paradiso on May 2nd and 4th. The Moro Spanish Film Festival runs until May 15th. For more information and session times visit their website.