Despite its Oscar,

Fernando Trueba's new film isn't a prizewinner

That Fernando's yearnings descend from the spiritual to the romantic to a "why-not" romp is part of the movie's problem. His loves grow less complicated, not more so, and as a result the film loses steam. This approach might have worked if Trueba's plan had been to show the descent of man, or some such, but Fernando's progress doesn't feel that pointed. Trueba wants to show "freedom" and to keep his tone light, so we're stuck on the surface of his story. He also wants to show the assertiveness of his female leads, but ultimately this becomes Fernando's story, not theirs.

But the biggest failing comes from Fernando's passivity and his general dimness. Jorge Sanz's boyishly straight face served him well in The Lovers, where he played another man who has to choose between women (in that film, between the Madonna and the whore). But here that straight face becomes a cipher. Trueba doesn't push him or anybody else, and the result is at best mildly amusing, at worst flat and bland. We learn virtually nothing about Fernando (it's revealing that the filmmaker gave his lead character his own name) as the film unwinds.

Belle Epoque is also overloaded with characters. Some, such as the town's rascal of a priest, are potentially interesting, but they aren't given enough time to develop. Others, such as the young royalist engaged to Rocio, are as broadly conceived and played as sitcom characters.

And one potentially complex character is reduced to mere symbol when he inexplicably commits suicide while clutching a copy of Unamuno's

The Tragic Sentiment of Life. This is obviously meant to be significant. But significant of what, I couldn't tell.

With its teeming cast and clash between political, social and religious world-views, Belle Epoque wants to be a farce and to have its characters pushed to the ends of their internal logic. It, or at least I, want a dose of another Spanish director, Pedro Almodovar, in other words. But it settles for much less. And maybe as a result, it won itself an Oscar.

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