Hola! Cruz and friends are out to seduce the British

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Spanish-language film-makers believe 2007 is the year when Hispanic films will finally achieve a breakthrough in Britain, long considered the most difficult international market of all.

Penelope Cruz was nominated on Friday for best actress in the Bafta awards, pitting her against such home-grown screen goddesses as Dame Helen Mirren, Dame Judi Dench and Kate Winslet.

Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth - a Mexican-Spanish fantasy about Franco's Spain - gained eight nominations, including best non-English-language film, along with Pedro Almodóvar's Volver, starring Cruz.

France has long adored Spanish cinema; Hollywood has recently succumbed to its charms. But the Hispanic film industry has long felt that the language barrier held it back in Britain, despite fervent minority followings for directors such as Almodóvar.

That, however, seems about to change. "This year, we've seen Hispanic films with Hollywood stars competing equally with Anglo-Saxon movies," says the cultural critic Aurora Inchausti.

"We now compete on equal terms with the best. This is completely new. It's been a gradual process, but this year we're breaking through to the English-speaking public with actors, directors and technicians of extraordinary quality."

The American success of Babel, starring Brad Pitt and directed by the Mexican Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, is expected to boost the movie in Britain. It received seven Bafta nominations, including best film.

English-speaking audiences are reassured by seeing familiar stars in Hispanic productions, such as Viggo Mortensen of Lord of the Rings fame, in Alatriste, a blockbuster about a 16th-century Spanish soldier-adventurer by veteran director Agustin Diaz Yanes.

Oscar winner Adrien Brody spent months in Spain preparing for his title role in the forthcoming biopic, Manolete, about a legendary matador. Penelope Cruz plays the love interest in that movie; she also shares screen credits with the Mexican star Salma Hayek in Bandidas, a movie described by one critic as "shameless, silly and very entertaining". They play skimpily clad bank robbers in an exotic high-energy romp that echoes Louis Malle's Viva Maria of 1965, which starred Brigitte Bardot and Jeanne Moreau.

The Cruz-Hayek pairing produced an intense friendship - and some provocative photos, prompting rumours of a lesbian relationship.

Cruz laughed off the reports: "We are like sisters, and we have the same sense of humour. We posed like that in front of 100 photographers, and now they say we're lovers. I'm sorry, but that's not the case."

None of this hurts the ratings. But Cruz and Hayek don't need such gossip; they are serious players in LA. Hayek is a top-rank producer, responsible for the US hit Ugly Betty, now on Channel 4. Cruz, too, has her own production company.

"Globalisation is making English-speaking people receptive to influences outside their culture," says the cultural commentator Jesus Ruiz Mantilla. "And that door is opening at a moment of extremely high-quality Hispanic films."