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Perfectly mediocre film you'd expect to win Best Foreign Language Oscar
on October 10, 2010
*** This review contains spoilers ***
The bulk of 'Belle Epoque' is supposed to be a pastoral romance, a farce of sorts despite being set during the heady eve of the Spanish Civil War in 1931. The film begins inappropriately with our protagonist, Fernando, an army deserter, having just been taken into custody by two officers of the Civil Guard who happen to be father and son-in-law. The father-in-law wants to let Fernando go but the son-in-law, a Nationalist, can't stomach the idea of allowing a 'traitor' to walk free so impulsively he shoots his father-in-law to death but realizing he'll have to face his wife later on and tell her that he's responsible for killing her father, ends up killing himself. Not a very good idea to start off with such an unpleasant scene when most of your story is supposed to be comic in tone.
Fernando arrives in a village and seeks to patronize a prostitute at the local brothel. We find out the local priest has no guilt feelings about playing cards with his buddies inside the brothel. There, Fernando meets one of the priest's fellow card players, Manolo, a retired artist, who invites him to stay at his house. Like most people in the village, Manolo is decidedly pro-Republican and is thoroughly tolerant of alternative lifestyles. Fernando is about to return to Madrid but changes his mind when Manolo's four daughters arrive by train.
Since this is a farce, we're supposed to suspend our disbelief when each of the four daughters falls for the rather passive Fernando with the libertine Manolo encouraging the randy Lothario as he beds each woman.
One of the daughters, Violeta, is an independent woman who works as a veterinarian and also happens to be a lesbian. When the daughters dress Fernando up as a maid for a costume party at a local carnival, Violeta dresses herself up in Fernando's army uniform and then ends up having sex with him inside a barn at the carnival. In a scene more titillating than erotic, Fernando passively lies underneath in his maid's costume as Violeta makes love to him on top. The next day, Fernando informs Manolo of the encounter and he's overjoyed that his daughter now has shown an interest in men. Violeta squelches any possibilities that she has an interest in the opposite sex and makes it clear to her father that in effect the previous night's encounter was simply 'role-playing' and she really has no interest in Fernando.
Despite her great attraction to Fernando, Rocio, another one of Manolo's daughters, has been involved with Juanito, a son of a wealthy Royalist widow, who has difficulty escaping the clutches of his control freak mother. There are some rather unfunny scenes with the mother going after Rocio and Juanito even goes so far as to demand that he be excommunicated from the church by the local priest in order to prove to Rocio he's no longer a mamma's boy. At the same time, Rocio strings Juanito along but eventually realizes that they were made for each other and end up marrying.
Fernando also tries to prove his mettle with Clara, who lost her husband a year before in a drowning accident. The film's scenarists try to extract some humor in a reference to the deceased husband's last meal. Clara mentions that he loved rice and her sister states it was the only dish he knew how to cook. Clara then lamely replies, "I know". Clara becomes so confused over her feelings for Fernando, that she ends up pushing him into the river, in the same spot where her ex-husband drowned. Fernando contracts pneumonia and the daughters then have to attend to him to ensure that he recovers.
The last daughter, Luz (played by Penelope Cruz), is perhaps the least interesting of the four daughters. She's simply childish and is jealous of her three sisters who have already become involved with Fernando. I'm not sure exactly why Fernando ends up with Luz (perhaps he feels sorry for her) but the young couple are seen leaving for America at film's end.
In addition to the sour note of the murder/suicide at the start of the film, there's also another unsavory moment when the priest kills himself after he feels betrayed by his hero, poet/philosopher Miguel de Unamono, who for a short while supported Franco and the Nationalists.
Belle Epoque fails not only for its two brief unnecessary forays into tragedy (the death of the Civil Guards and the Priest suicide) but because the principal characters are decidedly superficial and hence inconsequential. Violeta is basically mean-spirited (recall her unchivalrous tirade after Fernando informs her father of their fling); Rocio is a shallow coquette in regards to her relationship with Juanito, the foolish Clara is disconnected, unable to truly grieve over her lost husband and Luz is simply an immature adolescent. As for Fernando, his behavior with the four daughters speaks for itself!
Only Manolo, the intuitive libertine, comes across as somewhat multi-dimensional character. He's seen as particularly likable when he's willing to accept his opera singer wife's manager who he's quite aware has been involved with her while they've been on tour. Manolo is also a philosopher--I particularly liked when he reads a sensual passage from the 'The Magic Mountain' and concludes with the line: "What youth!".
As a point of comparison, there's a British/Irish film made in 2000 entitled 'About Adam' which has a very similar storyline to Belle Epoque. A young Lothario ingratiates his way into a household consisting mainly of women who have become besotted with him. Both are farcical in tone but 'Adam' manages to exude a slight bit more charm than the specious 'Epoque'.
'Belle' is the perfect kind of mediocre film which you would expect would win an Oscar for Best Foreign Language feature. It was safe and offended no one which guaranteed all the awards and accolades it managed to garner.