El Planeta. 2021. Spain. Directed by Amalia Ulman. Courtesy Utopia

MoMA film curator Josh Siegel served on the selection committee for New Directors/New Films 2021. You can stream El Planeta and a Q&A with the filmmaker April 28 through May 3 on Virtual Cinema, available exclusively to MoMA Members. Join today to start streaming.

Who is this kid just out of film school, Steven Spielberg? And this other fellow, Wong Kar Wai? Never heard of him either. I do like the sound of his movie, though: Days of Being Wild.

Imagine being among the first of your friends to discover legendary filmmakers when they were just getting their start. Imagine taking a chance on other complete unknowns, on having a whole new world opened up to you by the likes of Spike Lee, Kelly Reichardt, Chantal Akerman, Wim Wenders, and Pedro Almodóvar. Such is the thrill of New Directors/New Films, the festival co-organized by MoMA and Film at Lincoln Center for the past 50 years. What began in 1972 as something unique among all film festivals, a highly discriminating, non-competitive survey of emerging talent—no prizes, just seriously fun moviegoing—has since evolved into an internationally celebrated showcase of visionary and cutting-edge cinema. Comprising 25 or so features and a handful of shorts, each of which excites, provokes, or challenges in ways few other contemporary films do, New Directors/New Films heralds the great promises of today who will quite likely become the household names of tomorrow.

El Planeta is one of the smartest and funniest films to come out of the Second Great Depression of 2008.

It is with tremendous pleasure, then, that we launch this year’s 50th-anniversary edition of ND/NF with Amalia Ulman’s debut feature El Planeta. A dark comedy from Spain involving an unlikely pair of social climbers and scam artists, El Planeta recalls Ernst Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise (1932) and Peter Bogdanovich’s Paper Moon (1973), as well as the eccentric absurdism of films by Hal Hartley and Miranda July (both of whom are thanked in the credits). El Planeta is one of the smartest and funniest films to come out of the Second Great Depression of 2008, a catastrophe whose effects continue to reverberate in devastating, even volatile, ways across the world. Ulman takes on weighty and seemingly intractable problems of neoliberalism, conspicuous consumption, and anomie in the breeziest and subtlest of ways, reflecting on the grim fate of Spain’s Lost Generation—in 2015, 58% of the nation’s young workers were unemployed, the highest rate in the Eurozone—with intelligence, wit, and deadpan comic timing.

El Planeta is loosely based on a story torn from the tabloids, the sensational swindles of Justina and Ana Belén, and on a number of strange and difficult incidents in Ulman’s own life, including a period of homelessness and a bus accident that left her disabled. The film follows a mother-daughter pair of grifters (played by Ulman and her mother Ale, a born actress with no previous experience) who try to pass as rich socialites while secretly living on borrowed time and borrowed money. The women are willing to consider anything—dropping famous names, lifting credit cards, performing sexual favors—to avoid eviction from their cramped apartment by month’s end. In choosing the setting for this scenario of (self-)deception, Ulman looked to her childhood town of Gijon, in northwest Spain, a former center of coal mining that had fallen on hard times even before the collapse of its burgeoning seaside tourist industry during the 2008 global economic crisis. “Growing up, there were many eccentric characters in my city,” Ulman recalls in our recent Q&A about the film (which you can watch on Virtual Cinema). “They would do weird things around town, never get in trouble, and seemed to not have a job. For example, Mercrominu, the man who dressed as a sailor, covered himself in merbromin, and looked through the trash. I had always assumed he was homeless, but when he died there was a big story about him in the newspaper revealing he had actually been a count.” Born in Argentina, raised in Gijon, and now living and working in New York, Ulman is herself an itinerant, and has seen her own uprooting as an opportunity for reinvention.

El Planeta. 2021

El Planeta. 2021

Themes in El Planeta of the double life and the divided self—of the disconnect between how we see ourselves and how we fear being seen by others—provide both rich comic fodder and a poignant sense of vulnerability and loss. The mother who refuses to go outside without her fur coat, even to smuggle deli meats out of the neighborhood supermarket, also refuses to let her daughter forget the sacrifices she made as a single parent, her now-distant (and somewhat ridiculous) dreams of becoming a war correspondent or a ballerina devolving into the quixotic fantasy of becoming the mistress of a local politician.

Ulman has investigated similar questions of authenticity and self-fashioning in her work as an artist, moving freely from gallery installations and performance to the virtual world of social media. In her notorious Instagram performance Excellences and Perfections, she concocted a crazy narcissistic soap opera involving a luxury- and image-obsessed girl trying to make it in the big city. The airbrushed and sexualized avatar “Amalia Ulman”—a Material Girl? an Immaterial Girl?—fooled her 147,000 adoring fans while unmasking myths of privacy and the “true” self. Similarly, in El Planeta, Ulman uses humor to unnerve, disarm, and skewer. The proverbial Someone to Watch, she’s a fresh—and cheeky—New Face of this year’s New Directors/New Films.

Watch El Planeta on MoMA’s Virtual Cinema from April 28 to May 3.