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Despite its Oscar,

Fernando Trueba's new film isn't a prizewinner

Belle Epoque arrives on the wings of its recent Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. The voters were apparently in a playful mood, as they chose this essentially light, romantic comedy over the flawed, but still towering, dammit, Farewell My Concubine, a film whose virtues continue to grow in my imagination all these months later (and whose flaws no longer have the power to annoy).

Or maybe the Academy took Belle Epoque's satire of religion and its literary name-dropping to mean that the film has great depths beneath its smoothly flowing surface. In theory it does, but they remain largely unexplored. This is an exercise more in paddleboating than in diving. The physical setting is "somewhere in Spain," but the time is quite specific: 1931. The monarchy is on the verge of giving way to the republic, but not without some unpleasantries. (Five years later the republic would be attacked by Franco and the forces of world Fascism, but this film doesn't consider that tragedy to come.) Young Fernando (Jorge Sanz) has fled his Madrid military garrison because it indulged in a coup he couldn't go along with. I'd like to be more precise here, but the politics of the moment and the coup are a bit murky, even to a Hispanophile such as myself.

At any rate, we meet Fernando as he's traveling along a country road, where a pair from the Guardia Civil national police force arrest him for desertion. One policeman goes through Fernando's suitcase and finds a Bible, something that confuses him -- a "Red" with a Bible? As it happens, Fernando has deserted another Spanish institution as well: the Church, where he'd been a seminarian before joining the army. So we're presented with a confused young man who's both vaguely leftist and vaguely religious, which in the Spain of the '30s was an unlikely combination. The two guards are apparently infected by Fernando's confusion. In a fight over whether to turn their prisoner in, one guard kills the other, then commits suicide in a fit of remorse.

The fictional Fernando is thus able to escape, but director Fernando Trueba is not so light-footed. This introduction is intended to pack a wallop. It's supposed to raise questions and jolt us with answers. Instead, it falls flat. We don't know any of the characters well enough to respond deeply, and there's nothing in the acting or the way the camera directs our eye to draw us in.

The film's chief weakness is exposed here -- the passivity of Fernando, who acts as our point-of-view character. In the drama of the guards, as in the drama later, when four beautiful sisters are fighting over him, Fernando is more observer than participant. The saga of the sisters, which fills the bulk of the movie, begins in the nearby village where Fernando, still on the run, is taken in by an older man, Manolo (Fernando Fernan Gómez). A painter who moved out to the provinces to concentrate on his art, then apparently forgot all about it, Manolo is on the lookout for good conversation and good food. After Fernando has cooked for him, Manolo says he's "eating like a priest," that is, high on the hog. Manolo would like to invite the young deserter to live with him and be the son he never had. But because his four daughters are about to arrive from Madrid, where post-coup life has become dangerous, the invitation is never extended. The reason is clear: he doesn't want to turn Fernando loose among his beauties.

But when Fernando sees the young women arrive, he sets things in motion by inviting him-self to stay, a decision with which the women enthusiastically agree.

The comedy of Fernando and his search for ideal love, when he's offered four nearly ideal choices, is a curious failure. I'm tempted to say that his 15 minutes with each woman feel like a forced divvying-up of screen time, and that four choices are just too many for a 108-minute film. But Trueba, screenwriter Rafael Azcona and the actresses (Miriam Diaz-Aroca, Penelope Cruz, Maribel Verde and Ariadna Gil) do intelligent work in giving the four women and their separate adventures distinct, if necessarily lightly developed, personalities and logic.

Violeta (Ariadna Gil), the first of Fernando's loves, can't be called a conquest. A conquistador is more like it. Violeta calls herself a man, and is only attracted to Fernando at a masquerade ball, when he is dressed in a maid's outfit and she in his army uniform. She conquers him, and then he, silly goose, decides he's in love. This leads to the film's best line. The morning after the ball, when Fernando goes to Manolo to confess that he has seduced his daughter and that he intends to marry her, the old man exclaims, "Was there copulation? It's a miracle!" When Fernando proposes marriage, Violeta merely curls her manly lip.

In another episode, one sister, Rocio (Maribel Verdú), is engaged to a local yokel, but she takes comfort with Fernando when her future mother-in-law, a royalist religious nut, becomes too overbearing. Fernando decides he's in love with her too, then has his heart broken when she returns to her fiance. By the time he has joined with a third sister, Clara (Miriam Diaz-Aroca), a young widow, Fernando's quest has become purely physical.

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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