In "Padre Nuestro" (Grande and Monica 4-Plexes), writer-director Francisco Regueiro and actors Fernando Rey and Francisco Rabal paint a scathing portrait of Spanish aristocracy, religion and morals. Yet they do it with such elegance and tact that the thrusts seem cloaked in velvet.
The film has a veneer of classicism. Regueiro, who began as a painter, lights and composes his shots as if they were portraits by Velasquez, or a Dutch master. The faces of the characters, swallowed up in brown interiors, glow out from the darkness. Within these shadowy rooms, or against landscapes softly muted by the lowering clouds, they speak with measured rhythms or ornate eloquence, laced with bursts of acrid candor. In this comic drama, there's a rich, elegant surface, and a subsurface seething with lust, greed, stupidity, deception and venality.
Rey and Rabal are cast as brothers, and their very titles or names--\o7 Cardenal \f7 and Abel--have a mocking suggestiveness. They play, respectively, a dying Catholic cardinal and an atheistic doctor. Both come from an aristocratic family, rotting with all those hypocrisies and insanities that Spanish \o7 cineastes \f7 from Bunuel to Carlos Saura and Mario Camus delight in exposing. And they meet in their family mansion, one last time, when the holy brother (Rey) decides to tie up his earthly affairs, after 30 years at the Vatican.
Those affairs are earthly indeed. Thirty years ago, the Cardinal was the town rake, and he left an illegitimate daughter (Victoria Abril) who in turn sired an illegitimate granddaughter during a life of prostitution. Her local brothel nickname was the \o7 Cardenala.\f7
More is involved here than expiation. There are also the family lands, which the Cardinal has vowed--to his still-living, formidable mother--will remain in the family, but which the church itself covets, since they include vineyards that produce the communion wine. The Cardinal's solution--marrying his daughter off to his bachelor brother, her uncle--has a dazzling, perverse logic. Respectability is snatched from sinfulness by that old aristocratic vice, inbreeding.
Rey and Rabal, friends for years, are perhaps Spain's two greatest film actors; they give beautifully layered performances. They tease out the scabrous intrigues, and the affection, under these modulated surfaces. And the complexities too: The Cardinal, under his veneer of churchly celibacy and serenity, is suave and worldly; his younger brother, atheist scoffer and apparent libertine, is a secret virgin. Playing with these depths, the actors mine their personas: Rey brings out sophistication and elegant understatement, Rabal ruthless bluntness and yearning humanity.
Watching them act together is pure delight, a pleasure that justifies the entire film. When they meet and clash, it's like the best actors' duels and matchups of the past: Hepburn-Tracy, Olivier-Richardson, Gabin-Jouvet, Cagney-Bogart. The dialogue becomes a ball batted effortlessly back and forth, kept spinning and dancing with casual expertise. One sequence--where Rey's Cardinal catches his brother masturbating, scolds him, forgives him and then sagely counsels him on proper boudoir performance--is a gem of comic interplay.
Regueiro seems at his best here when emotions are repressed, and his classical framing can suggest the conventions blocking them. In the more unbuttoned brothel or village scenes, despite jolts of sensuality from Victoria Abril, the movie can seem arch or schematic. The Dutch or Flemish masters whom ex-painter Regueiro recalls are always Vermeer or Rembrandt, sometimes Van Ruisdael--but never Bruegel or Bosch.
The story is strongest in its small scenes and diminuendos, weakest in its crescendos. It either needs more Rabelaisian juice, or, perhaps, much less. But as long as Rey and Rabal are on screen, "Padre Nuestro" (Times-rated: mature, for sex, nudity and language) bursts with irony, regrets and all the miseries and sometime joys of life. By the end, the film has joined together humor and pathos, ideals and follies, warmth and satire, in an almost seamless embrace.