Belle Epoque (Spain , 1992)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

"Belle Epoque is the story of Paradise: too good to last. It's about the discovery of life, but the real one, I mean: freedom, art, love, sex, friendship...all the things that make life interesting. It's an oasis... Maybe it's too idealistic, but I always thought one of the reasons for cinema was to give pleasure and happiness to the audience. I don't want to make people think about how miserable life is. I prefer to leave that for tomorrow. I like to hear the audience laughing in a dark theater. That's the best music for me."
- Fernando Trueba, director/producer of Belle Epoque

Belle Epoque, the winner of 9 Goyas (Spanish Oscars), is a charming motion picture that requires only enough thought and concentration to read the subtitles. As a diversion, the film is fabulous. How it managed to win the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar (especially over a contender like Farewell My Concubine) is another matter altogether.

It is 1931 Spain and the country's monarchy is facing its final days. During this time of confusion and conflicting loyalties, Fernando (Jorge Sanz), whose allegiance is to the republic, deserts from the army and goes on the run into the Spanish countryside. There, he meets Manolo (Fernando Fernan Gomez), a painter who shares his political beliefs. The two quickly become friends and Fernando spends a night at the older man's house, listening to his stories and cooking for him. Then, in the morning when Fernando is to leave, Manolo's four young, beautiful daughters -- Luz (Penelope Cruz), Rocio (Maribel Verdu), Violeta (Ariadna Gil), and Clara (Miriam Diaz-Aroca) -- arrive. Fernando takes one look at them and decides to prolong his stay with Manolo for a while longer.

Some of issues presented by the tumultuous political climate and the churning waters of religious uncertainty keep Belle Epoque from being a completely brainless endeavor. Nevertheless, anything serious is kept strictly in the background, and even the most dismal scenes are presented with enough playfulness to avoid betraying the giddy tone.

With a minimum of nudity, Belle Epoque demonstrates that the blatant displays of flesh from something like Sirens are unnecessary to set an atmosphere of sensuality. This is a steamy motion picture with its share of bed-hopping and partner-swapping. Penelope Cruz (who revealed a lot more in Jamon, Jamon) alone is enough to make the screen sizzle.

All six major characters are nicely-developed. Despite the numerous sexual trysts he engages in, Fernando is still something of an innocent, and Jorge Sanz plays him to wide-eyed perfection. The most complex character of all is Manolo, who is based on a real-life acquaintance of producer/director Fernando Trueba. The character's own words describe him best: "I am a rebel, an infidel, and a libertine by nature, living life like a scared old bourgeois."

Each of Manolo's four daughters is different. Rocio is the playful and glamorous one, who in turn fights off and embraces the advances of a clumsy suitor. Violeta is a tomboy, who dresses as a man and won't consider sex until her partner is dressed as a woman. Clara is a widow desperately yearning for companionship. And Luz is a virgin, annoyed that she's not always privy to her older sisters' confidences.

Very little of the humor in Belle Epoque is "intellectual" -- in fact, much of it is quite earthy. More important than the nature of the comedy, however, is that it is legitimately funny. As was Trueba's intention when he crafted the film, the viewer's most likely reaction is a smile. Despite the subtitles, this is less art than fun. Belle Epoque is an enchanting, unpretentious, two-hour vacation from the rigors of real life.

Belle Epoque (Spain , 1992)

Director: Fernando Trueba
Cast: Jorge Sanz, Fernando Fernan Gomez, Penelope Cruz, Maribel Verdu, Ariadna Gil, Miriam Diaz-Aroca
Screenplay: Rafael Azcona
Cinematography: José Luis Alcaine
Music: Antoine Duhamel
U.S. Distributor: Sony Classics
Run Time: 1:48
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "R" (Sexual Situations, Nudity, Profanity)
Subtitles: Spanish with English subtitles
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2:35:1