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Belle Epoque

Rated R, 109 min. Directed by Fernando Truebo. Starring Penélope Cruz, Miriam Díaz-Aroca, Ariadna Gil, Maribel Verdú, Jorge Sanz, Fernando Fernán Gómez.

REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., April 22, 1994

This winner of 1993's Academy Award for best foreign film (and winner of nine Goyas -- Spain's top film prize) is a light and airy comedy that really shouldn't work as well as it does. But with its narrative simplicity and charming performances and deft directorial touch, Belle Epoque emerges as an entertaining romp. It's a reverie of one man's belle époque, or beautiful time, not quite real and not quite fantasy, just a moment of serendipity that transcends the mundane. At heart an extended “farmer's daughter” tale, Belle Epoque succeeds by eliminating the potential smut factor and celebrating the whimsy of choice. Set in Spain in 1931, the story recounts the experiences of Fernando (Sanz), an army deserter to whom a free-thinking artist, Manolo (Gómez), extends shelter and friendship. When Manolo's four daughters return to his big, countryside home in order to escape the political strife in Madrid, Fernando finds himself in paradise. In turn, he seduces -- or, more accurately, is seduced by -- each of these four lovely young women. Each one different, each one tempting, Fernando is giddy with an embarrassment of riches. There's the flirt, the “mannish” one (her seduction of Fernando while they are both mutually cross-dressed for a costume party is a memorable come-on), the widow, and the virgin. Fernando's affections fluctuate with each gonadal stirring. And, of course, choice would put an end to Fernando's romantic idyll. The chastely depicted couplings help keep the movie's emphasis on freedom of choice rather than lecherous sex farce. Director Treubo's debt to Jean Renoir's minor masterpiece, A Day in the Country is evident in its bucolic atmosphere and plein air lighting. Also evident in Treubo's style is Renoir's signature humanism that generously allowed each character his or her individual motivation thereby creating a universe with no villains -- only people with their reasons. A couple of severely dark moments also punctuate Belle Epoque, just enough to help us keep in mind the backdrop of this period of Spanish history in which tumultuous social and political ferment accompanied the crumbling of the monarchy. It was a time for making choices and dreaming of utopias. Though humorous, Belle Epoque's charm resides more in its good-naturedness than its comedy. Like the situation itself, it's a joy while it lasts, a chimera when it's gone.
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