Praising the Messiah

Praising the Messiah

By Michael Pickard
January 16, 2024


La Mesías (The Messiah) creators, writers, directors and producers Javier Calvo and Javier Ambrossi open up about this standout Spanish series, which blends family drama and psychological thrills to tell a story about a man revisiting his traumatic childhood.

It has been hailed as the Spanish-language series of the past year, but how can you best describe La Mesías (The Messiah)?

Part family drama, part psychological thriller, it’s notable that not even the creators, Javier Calvo and Javier Ambrossi, can quite pin down the show, which stands out in the crowded television landscape as an entirely unique and original series that blends a fractured timeline with complex storytelling.

“The shows we like and the movies we like, they don’t belong to a single genre. La Mesías is not copied from anything. It has its own rules,” Calvo says. “Is it a thriller, a comedy, a fantasy, realism? It’s many things. It’s the response of something that comes from within.”

The story begins with Enric (Roger Casamajor), whose childhood was marked by his parents’ neglect, their religious fanaticism and his mother’s messianic delirium that dominated his suffocating adolescence. But when he sees Stella Maris on TV, a Catholic music group made up of several young sisters whose videos have gone viral, he becomes determined to save them from the same childhood he suffered.

After Enric reunites with his estranged sister Irene (Macarena García), they begin to search for Stella Maris and unravel the secrets of their past – Enric and Irene are the only ones who managed to escape the family sect led by their mother Monserrat, and the members of Stella Maris are their sisters.

Los Javis: Javier Ambrossi (left) and Javier Calvo

A seven-part series that debuted in October last year, it tells a story that deals with childhood trauma, religious fanaticism, family, hopes and fears, guilt and forgiveness. It also discusses themes of joy and love, faith and art, while music and dance also feature heavily.

But the ambition of the show’s creators, writers, producers and directors Calvo and Ambrossi, also known as Los Javis, goes further. La Mesías takes place across three timelines, with three different actors playing the central characters – Enric, Irene and Monserrat – at different stages of their lives as the story bounces from the present to the past.

Often filled with fantastical sequences, the show also takes its time to reveal itself through its disrupted story arcs, demanding viewers watch the whole series to find the answers and solutions they and the characters are seeking.

“It began with this true story about these sisters who created a Catholic music group that went viral. They were weird, strange and people laughed at them, but we thought, ‘What is behind the joke? What is behind this viral thing?’” Calvo says, speaking during a La Mesías case study session at Content London last month.

“We started to imagine and think about this virality and these times where we see a lot of things and laugh at people and make our opinions. It was interesting to build from that a story of trapped children and a story of religious fanaticism. We started to imagine what was behind it and investigate stories of trapped people, and we realised many stories about trapped families and religious fanaticism had something common – they use art as a way of liberating themselves. We thought it was interesting to talk about how when you’re trapped, art is a way to escape, and religion too, so we started from there.”

Stella Maris, the Catholic music group featured in the series

“We tried to mix it with our personal stories to make it very true, not only to take one or different true stories,” Ambrossi continues. “I had a very complicated childhood – my mother was 17 when I was born – so we tried to mix it with our personal story. We wanted to create a storyline in the present, and we wanted to talk about this idea of being separated from the people you love the most because you don’t want to see in their eyes your own story.

“Then we started writing the story like pieces of a broken mirror, where every episode is a weird part of the mirror, and when you put all the parts together, you can see yourself. That’s what we tried to do. We want the audience to see themselves when they experience the whole show.”

Los Javis are actors, writers, directors and producers who are considered to be among the most influential stars in Spain, following the success of their 2016 Netflix comedy Paquita Salas and 2020 Atresmedia and HBO Max series Veneno, a biopic about Spanish transgender singer and TV star Cristina Ortiz Rodriguez, who was known as La Veneno.

The pair, who are partners away from the screen, have also appeared as judges on reality competition series such as The Masked Singer and Drag Race España.

On La Mesías, they were then given the freedom by streamer Movistar+ to make every decision on the series as writers, producers and directors of every episode. Their company Suma Content is the producer.

La Mesías shows its main characters in both the past and the present, using different actors

“Everything the audience will see on the screen is the result of what we have chosen, so our bodies and minds are behind the show,” Ambrossi says. “It’s an auteur show, but it’s a big, mainstream show and we wanted to mix those together.”

“It’s been a great journey,” notes María Valenzuela, the head of Movistar+ International, which is distributing the series. “Every episode has so much of them and their experiences, brought together with stories that are happening not only in Spain but worldwide. You also have your own feelings and experience, and all those layers are something you feel in the story.

María Valenzuela

“When you start watching, you see and feel the layers, and you know you don’t have the full picture. But knowing there are so many things you are going to have an answer for [by the end] is very attractive and makes you very addicted to the show.”

“No one wants to watch a show that is painted by numbers,” Ambrossi notes. “I know it’s usually like, ‘OK, the pilot is ending, I’m supposed to be hooked, they’re going to reveal something at the end…’ Who cares about that? Of course, money is OK, a lot of [viewers] is OK, but at the end of the day, who cares? No one cares about that. The important thing about La Mesías is when you see the whole show, when you experience the whole show, you will feel a part of the show.

“It’s quite a phenomenon because people are quoting the lines, doing [Monserrat’s] hand movements. The music is very popular because it’s full of real songs, music videos and pop moments, and it’s fun. And it’s happened naturally, organically.”

Music is a key part of the series, with a soundtrack that features songs by artists including Bon Jovi, coupled with original music from Raül Refree and Spanish pop band Hidrogenesse, who are responsible for the songs that bring Stella Maris to the public’s attention.

Such has been the success of La Mesías that Stella Maris have been invited to perform at Barcelona’s Primavera Sound music festival later this year, while their songs can also be found on Spotify and YouTube.

Roger Casamajor stars as the adult Enric…

But just as notable as the music in the series are the numerous scenes performed in near silence, with little dialogue or ambient noise.

“It was important to us that the characters didn’t say what they felt all the time. That’s melodrama,” Calvo explains. “We wanted to make a drama and get the audience to understand what was happening without people saying it. Sometimes they are saying the opposite of what they’re thinking but you still understand it. We wanted to make the kind of television where people understand it and feel it.”

As men writing female characters, the pair leaned on influences such as their own relatives – and Pedro Almodóvar’s movies – to shape the show’s protagonists. “We’ve grown up with female characters, so I think creating complex, contradictory female characters is great,” Calvo says. “Female audiences are grateful for that. When we made Vereno, we thought, ‘Let’s create a trans woman who is not a saint’ – she’s mean, she’s good, she’s everything. We as LGBT people like to be portrayed not only as victims, or ‘good,’ but as many things, and it’s the same with women.”

“But we are not specifically trying to portray women a certain way,” Ambrossi adds. “We try to respect every single character, even the characters with one line. We try to respect them with complexity, with humanity, with dark sides.”

In scenes set in the past and featuring the family’s small children, Calvo and Ambrossi would often work with no script at all, leaving the young actors to find their way through scenes after only a short rehearsal beforehand to inform what they would do or say when filming began.

…while Macarena García is his sister Irene

The decision to shoot the flashbacks on 60mm film could have been an expensive one had those improvised moments not worked out, but it certainly adds another layer to the scenes. Meanwhile, the present-day scenes were shot on digital cameras.

“We worked with solid references for every episode and we tried to make the camera part of the narrative,” Calvo says of the show’s visual style. “Where you put the camera or how you move it – or how you don’t – is important for how you tell the story. In episode three, the camera was still, with fewer shots, and life comes from outside and inside the frame. There are a lot of children, a lot of movement, but the camera is still. Then episode six was more like a theatre play. We had a lot of shots because we wanted to give it rhythm. How we used the camera was important in order to tell the story.”

Ambrossi picks up: “We always tried to use the camera as the point of view of the characters. We never do anything as directors just because we can; we always chose the movement of the camera and the frame because we understand the psychological connection of one character to that frame.”

As collaborators on set, Los Javis are “very different,” Ambrossi says. “We have been a couple for 12 years and working for 10 years every single day, weekends and nights. We have a good connection, but we are very different. My mind is very general and emotional; I’m connected with the whole idea of the show, the whole emotion and perspective. Javi is very detailed, so he’s very good with the camera, the frame and the movement and colours.”

Ever since La Casa de Papel (Money Heist) broke out on the international stage in 2017, Spain has become a huge exporter of series in the streaming age. But Valenzuela reveals that although many potential partners were fascinated by La Mesías, “no one wanted to join the boat.”

Blending genres: ‘Is it a thriller, a comedy, a fantasy, realism?’

That could be about to change, with La Mesías set to be screened at the Sundance Film Festival later this month. It has also been nominated in a record-breaking 11 categories at Spain’s upcoming Feroz Awards on January 26, including best drama, best screenplay, best actor for Casamajor (adult Enric), best actress for Lola Dueñas (adult Monserrat), García (adult Irene) and Ana Rujas (young Monserrat), best supporting actor for Albert Pia (Pep) and Biel Rossell Pelfort (young Enric), and best supporting actress for Amaia Romero (young Cecilia), Irene Balmes (young Irene) and Carmen Machi (older Monserrat).

“We said, ‘Listen, this is going to be incredibly good. We have so much trust in the creators, you have no idea how clear their ideas are, how much imagination, creativity and talent is going into the show.’ They just said, ‘Good luck and I hope you do it,’” Valenzuela recalls. “Now production is done and it’s breaking records.”

Los Javis are now eyeing their next movie, though they will still be involved in a pair of series produced by Suma Content that are heading into production this year. One is Superestar, which focuses on the singer Yurena, who became known as Tamara, a pop icon of the early 2000s. It has been created by Nacho Vigalondo (El vecino), who will direct with Claudia Costagreda (Cardo).

“It’s going to be quite a ride to be producers of two different shows,” Ambrossi says. “We also have seven developments and another three shows greenlit for the next few years. We’re not going to be on holiday.”

It’s also a sign that they won’t be performing multiple duties on every show they are involved in. “We understand there are two paths for us, as producers and creators, and we are taking care of both,” Ambrossi says. “We are in a very good moment, and after the success of Veneno in the US, we also received a lot of offers to direct English-language scripts and work with different platforms. We haven’t found yet what we want to do internationally, but we’re open to that.”

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