Oscar-winning 'Belle Epoque' evokes Spain before the Civil War

April 22, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

The beautiful time evoked by the title of the film "Belle Epoque," which opens today at the Rotunda, turns out not to be France at the turn of the century, its traditional meaning, but rather Spain in a brief burgeoning of hope that attended the fall of the monarchy and the installation of the Republic in 1931. Of course it's a memory flavored with the tartness of melancholy; just five years later, the country was seized by the violent paroxysm known as the Spanish Civil War.

The filmmaker Fernando Trueba has stated that he meant the piece not to be political at all, but at the same time the movie deftly evokes the many forces at play in that land in those years, and evokes some of the icons of the time. A priest, for example, is a devotee of the poet and philosopher Miguel de Unamuno, who was among the war's first and most famous casualties.

Meanwhile, a prosperous painter, Manolo (Fernando Fernan Gomez), apparently a member of the gentry, gently represents the forces of progressivism that were to come to be represented in the Republic, while another wealthy young man is a landowner who can put aside his political beliefs only for a while. A soldier who stays at the painter's house is fleeing the collapse of the monarchy; soon, the monarchists will be striking back and attempting to reassert order though the vessel of their deliverance will not be the king, Juan Carlos, but his general, Francisco Franco.

Perhaps because I was once obsessed with this tragic war, these nuances play larger on my mind than on yours, but because they do it's difficult for me to respond to the narrative with quite the same innocent enthusiasm as many do (the film won the Academy Award for best foreign film). To me, and anybody who studied that war, it's clear that we are watching the dead on one of their last good days.

Indeed, Trueba opens the film with an episode in which two policemen arrest the fleeing soldier and then squabble over his fate and end up with one killing the other and then himself. If that's not a foreshadowing of the darkness that was about to cloak the sunny land, I don't know what it could be; and, in the narrative, it's meant to cast the long shadow of death over what follows.

This is doubly bittersweet because what follows is so briskly carnal, so joyously lustful, such an encomium to the human passion to celebrate the flesh over the bayonet. The young man, Fernando (Jorge Sanz), takes refuge in wise old Manolo's house, where he quickly proves himself an invaluable companion and a superb cook. He's about to leave when the old man's four daughters arrive for the weekend and from that point on, he's a lost soul. For all are beautiful in different ways, and his beauty and innocence provoke them in diverse fashion.

Rocio (Maribel Verdu) is being pursued by the young landowner; but she's not quite ready to settle down, and Fernando's purity offers an amusing diversion. Violeta (Ariadna Gil), on the other hand, is a lesbian, who contrives to dress the young man as a woman and herself as a man; then she takes a real interest. Meanwhile, Clara (Miriam Dia-Aroca), a widow, draws him to the spot on the river where her husband died, knocks him in the water, and then drags him out, as if to deny her spouse's death and have him one more time. Only Luz (Penelope Cruz) is attracted to him for himself.

The joke, in all this wild coupling, is that Fernando, literal-minded and honor-bound, considers himself engaged to each young woman after the tryst, and announces his plans to tell father. This, of course, is the last thing the women want. The movie has something of a larky quality of "Midsummer Night's Dream" to it, a sex farce set in an enchanted glade.

For all of its pleasures, I cannot see how anybody could consider it more worthy of an Oscar than Chen Kaige's "Farewell My Concubine," which was beautiful and substantive and enthralling once. Still, whether it fills you with melancholy or pleasure, "Belle Epoque" is memorable.

"Belle Epoque"

Starring Fernando Fernan Gomez and Jorge Sanz

Directed by Fernando Trueba

Released by Sony Classics

Unrated

***

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