One of the benefits arising from the existence of Netflix is the sheer volume of drama and comedy from outside North America that is easily available.
As an example, if you haven’t seen Money Heist (La Casa de Papel), a Spanish drama, you’re really missing out on a unique take on the standard bank-heist format. It demolishes many of the clichés of heist movies and honours others, with a fair dollop of irony.
Several of the younger actors in Money Heist also appear in Netflix’s latest Spanish creation. Elite (now streaming) is a high-school drama that is recommended for its adherence to a very familiar narrative but also for adding a serious social agenda.
Elite is no masterpiece but is one of those oddly satisfying, binge-worthy curiosities. Yes, it’s set at a prep school for the elite, but rather than emphasize the usual tropes of nerds-versus-jocks and mean girls bullying nice girls, its main thrust is the gap between the haves and the have-nots. It’s also a murder mystery from the get-go.
The entire premise is, in fact, rooted in a sharp contrast between the lives of the working class and the idle, privileged rich. Three students from impoverished backgrounds are given scholarships to attend Las Encinas, a top school that looks like a luxury hotel and is filled with the sons and daughters of the very rich. The reason they got the scholarships is that their old school literally collapsed. The roof fell in and the poor construction is blamed on corruption in local municipal politics. Any old thing will do for school in a poor neighbourhood, is the gist.
The three are Nadia (Mina El Hammani), a keen scholar whose parents are Palestinian; Samuel (Itzan Escamilla), who works part-time as a waiter and lives with his mother, who is a cook, and with his brother Nano (Jaime Lorente), who is a petty criminal; and the third is Christian (Miguel Herran), who is best described as a clever hoser type.
From day one at Las Encinas the three are the objects of scorn. Nadia is bluntly told to remove her hijab or be expelled. Samuel is jeered because he’s a waiter and Christian is mocked for being uncouth. While the storylines come close to the stereotypical ingredients of snooty smart alecks battling earnest strivers, the bluntness about class divisions is striking. The collapsed school is clearly a symbol of a collapsed society and the loathing for the rich students and their parents is as obvious as a poke in the eye.
What you get in Elite is, on the one hand, some hackneyed plotting familiar from countless high-school dramas and, on the other hand, an angry denunciation of Spain itself. It has a cozy familiarity but carries the barely hidden weapon of fury.
It is also a whodunit, in the style of How to Get Away With Murder. That is, the audience isn’t sure who died, who did the killing and what might be the motive. You get a mystery that involves sex, murder, drugs and, probably, blackmail. It opens with a cop interrogating Samuel and goes backward from there. While it doesn’t have the sophistication of Money Heist and, as a teen drama, lacks the surreal bleakness of Riverdale, it’s a doozy of a look at Spain’s social woes.
By the way, in the matter of Netflix expanding horizons, the Netflix-produced movie 22 July starts streaming on Wednesday after screening at several film festivals. It’s a docudrama, directed by Paul Greengrass, about the mass murder in Norway in 2011, when terrorist Anders Breivik exploded a bomb in Oslo and then went to an island where he went on a shooting spree that left 69 people dead.