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Hard work, balance and loyalty are painted on the factory walls of the Básculas Blanco (Blanco Weighing Scales) family business whose CEO is excited about having been shortlisted for a new award. The ‘good boss’ of the film’s title, Julio Blanco, consummately played by Javier Bardem, appears slick and jovial but is increasingly exposed as ruthlessly amoral. His name translates as white but his principles are closer to whitewashing. With the judges due to visit to inspect the factory for themselves, he prepares to stage-manage the show that will greet their arrival. He spouts the rhetoric of paternalistic care – referring to his employees as his children – but there is a callous streak to his management. This is increasingly exposed as Miralles (Manolo Solo), his right-hand production manager, engulfed in marital complications, loses his grip on the company’s affairs.

Meanwhile, José (Oscar de la Fuente), a disgruntled former employee abruptly dismissed by Blanco, has set up a makeshift home outside the factory and is causing a public fuss with a repertoire of angry slogans denouncing Blanco’s dodgy practices, delivered with the aid of a deafening megaphone. And then the supposedly happily married Blanco sleeps with a new intern, Liliana (Almudena Amor) – who happens to be the daughter of an old friend – and finds himself having to deal with the possibility that the affair will become public.

The focus on scales – justice and balance – and the farcical unravelling of Blanco’s unethical practices ground the film as a satire on bribery, corruption and image manipulation in contemporary Spain. Blanco feigns loyalty but his oft-repeated line ‘Don’t treat me as a boss’ belies a brutal understanding of hierarchy exposed by the struggling Miralles, Solo expertly capturing the emotional disintegration fused with resentment at years of having to carry the can for Blanco’s dodgy dealings. Blanco’s answer to Miralles’s woes lies in hauling him to a strip club, betraying a predatory masculinity displayed also in his ugly grooming of Liliana.

This is a character-driven film with Bardem – who specialises in embodying screen menace – providing a thin, forced smile, an icy glance behind the wire rimmed glasses, and a repertoire of meticulously staged facial expressions feigning paternalistic care and concern. Appearances are all that matter. While Bardem and Fernando León de Aranoa’s first collaboration, Los lunes al sol (Mondays in the Sun) (2002), another film about labour relations, was marked by the striving for idealism and for community, The Good Boss navigates a workplace led by institutional cynicism, exploitation and hypocrisy. Bardem embodies a vision of leadership as bombast, a sense of entitlement and a willingness to dispense with anyone who won’t toe the party line. It’s a performance that ensures the film’s resonances echo well beyond Spain.

The Good Boss is in UK cinemas from tomorrow.