This year's Oscar winner for Best Foreign Film, Belle Epoque, is set "somewhere in Spain"--somewhere rural and sun-dappled and placidly lovely--in 1931. It wasn't such a beautiful epoch elsewhere in Spain that year, what with the mad, factional contentions by which the Second Republic was beginning its brief existence before Franco would come to power in 39.
But by the time these political waves reach the characters in the film, they've become mild, almost comic ripples. The "somewhere" of this film's Spain is the nostalgic past, a place where politics and sex and love are just a bit of pleasant turbulence to keep a sweet life from becoming dull. The major ripple is the film's hero, a handsome young man named Fernando (Jorge Sanz), a deserter from the Republican Army after the Republican defeat at Jaca. In the opening, Fernando witnesses a bit of grim violence--two civil guardsmen, who've taken him prisoner, end up dead after arguing over whether it's politically advantageous to them to release him. This pointless, irrational bloodshed, combined with a second peripheral tragedy near the end, seems intended to weight the film, to acknowledge the terror of the outside world. It feels gratuitous, but one can understand director Fernando Trueba's feeling that it was necessary, because the story is, otherwise, a featherweight erotic idyll. The main plot concerns how Fernando, an ex-seminarian and a good cook, ingratiates himself with Manolo (Fernando Fernn Gmez), a bemused, bourgeois homeowner with an absent opera-singer wife and four exquisite daughters (Ariadna Gil, Maribel Verd, Miriam Daz-Aroca and Penlope Cruz). The eldest is a sensual but guilt-ridden young widow, the second is butch, the third is a conventional, marriage-minded flirt, and the youngest is a passionate just-barely postpubescent.
You begin to see where this is going? One by one, each daughter has a dalliance with Fernando. It might have been offensive, and some may find it so as it stands, but the filmmakers have a built-in gag to keep it from seeming sleazy: Fernando is the object, always the seducee, not once the successful seducer, for all his effort. Daughter after daughter reveals to him, sometimes to his prim outrage, that the sex between them served some need of hers which had nothing to do with him. Even with this feminist disclaimer in the subtext, some might find it all too jocular and distasteful. But Trueba is able to vary the encounters--each of which, while not graphic, is sexier than anything I've seen recently in an American film--and avoid repetitiveness.
Also, there's a subplot involving a nerdy suitor of one of the daughters and his attempt to break free of his domineering, intensely religious, Carlist mother, and some other good character bits. These give the film a broader comic texture which, by contrast, makes the main plot seem almost reserved.
Most important, the acting is enchanting. Sanz, who resembles a swarthy, peasanty version of Robert Downey Jr., plays the butt of this good-natured dirty joke likably. He's never a phony innocent--he knows, as do we, exactly why he sticks around the house--but he's never merely predatory, either.
The daughters are each distinct, each a delight. Best of all, however, is Gmez as Manolo, the wry, accepting father. The interplay of these performers and several of the others keeps the tone so fanciful that most probably will be charmed.
I was. This film, like Kenneth Branagh's recent Much Ado About Nothing, has the visual and atmospheric qualities with which many of us might imagine Heaven--the ancient-looking yet cheering hacienda, the company of witty, tolerant, happily sensual people, the sense of constant yet never riotous celebration, the sunny, verdant warmth. And when the four daughters are shown standing in a row, as they often are, they do truly look like angels or minor goddesses. Films of this sort make for, psychologically, the most wistful kind of escapism, and when they fail--as, for me, the self-conscious Cinema Paradiso mostly did--they're irritating. But when they work, as, for me, most of Belle Epoque does, they create a delightful approximation of the state they're depicting. I don't mean to suggest that they are altogether wrong who are put off by the film's coarse structure, or by its too-easy and apologetic sexual politics. Implicitly, it keeps telling us, "See, we men are really okay sorts; we're just in over our heads with you crazy wenches." That sort of oily humility may even have a grain or two of truth in it, but it can still be used as a lure back toward comfy old gender roles.
But in this case, this objection carries little clout, because neither Fernando nor any of his lovers is oppressed, trapped in a role or a relationship he or she doesn't want. Some may find the artifice of this useless, but I found the idealized world of Belle Epoque a captivating one to visit. If it existed, I'd want to live there.-
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.