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Love and money in Franco's Spain

'Torremolinos 73,' a farce with emotional punch, makes a very promising debut for writer and director Pablo Berger.

April 22, 2005|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

"Torremolinos 73" is a pleasant surprise, a Spanish/Danish co-production that echoes its origins by adroitly mixing candid sex, cool humor and poignancy. It's a bawdy farce done with real delicacy, a charming adult comedy that ends up with unlooked-for emotional heft. If that doesn't cover all the bases, it certainly comes close.

It's a mark of "Torremolinos' " success that, even though film festivals are usually determined to spread their honors around, the film took all the top prizes -- film, director, actor and actress -- at the Malaga Film Festival in Spain and five out of six awards at a prestigious Spanish cinema event in Toulouse, France.

Though it's a small-scale film, only 91 minutes in length, "Torremolinos" succeeds by coming up with an intriguing story, casting it perfectly and having an exact sense of how to make its ideas work on screen. As a debut feature for writer-director Pablo Berger, it couldn't be more promising.

Set in the early 1970s, the waning days of Francisco Franco's strait-laced Spain, "Torremolinos" starts with the dogged figure of downtrodden door-to-door encyclopedia salesman Alfredo Lopez, beautifully played by the balding and bland-looking Javier Camara (last seen in Pedro Almodovar's "Talk to Her").

Alfredo's cross to bear, so to speak, is the 10 leather-bound luxury volumes that make up the Encyclopedia of the Spanish Civil War. Even with a gold-plated bust of the Generalissimo thrown in, business is so bad Alfredo has to sneak into his own apartment at night to avoid the landlady.

But once he's inside his own door, Alfredo's luck changes. He and his wife, Carmen (Candela Pena), are very much in love and -- remember this, it's important -- enjoy a pleasurable sex life. Only her desire for a child, which he says they can't afford, blights their happiness.

Suddenly, Alfredo's boss decides to ditch the encyclopedias and deal in "a new product, revolutionary and top secret."

The boss announces an alliance with the serious-sounding Copenhagen Institute of Sexual Research and asks his sales force to collaborate on the Spanish segments of the World Audio Visual Encyclopedia of Reproduction.

What this means in plainer language is that couples are asked to make "educational" Super 8 stag films of themselves making love in the privacy of their own bedrooms. The fees will be considerable and the risk minimal: Morality dictates that the films will never be sold in chaste Spain.

Nothing if not game, as well as poor, Alfredo and the recently unemployed Carmen decide to give this new business a try. With the help of their Scandinavian coaches, the imperturbable Frida (Mari-Anne Jespersen) and the earnest Erik (Tom Jacobsen) -- loath to let anyone forget his past association with, of all people, Ingmar Bergman -- these timid Spaniards turn out to have a surprising flair for cinematic erotica.

Berger not only came up with this delicious concept, but, with a firm sense of what makes something funny, he knows how to allow his jokes to build effortlessly.

Aided by a wonderful performance from actress Pena, "Torremolinos" turns timid mouse Carmen into a determined vixen.

In a peppy montage sequence, we see the happy couple use inventive costuming to discover all the standard variations of vintage hard-core storytelling: She appears as a nurse, he as a hunky deliveryman, she as a bride, a jailbait soccer player, and so on into the night.

If this kind of erotic Ealing comedy were all it had on its mind, "Torremolinos" (the meaning of its title is eventually revealed) would be well worth watching.

But the film has the ambition to go further, to deal with themes like the price of dreams and the importance of nonmaterial satisfactions.

Not every film would have the nerve to try to mix things up this way, and even fewer would have the skill to pull it off, but the gang from "Torremolinos 73" succeeds on both counts.


'Torremolinos 73'

No MPAA rating

Times guidelines: Graphic though comic depictions of sex behavior

Javier Camara ... Alfredo

Candela Pena ... Carmen

Juan Diego ... Carlos

Malena Alterio ... Vanessa

Fernando Tejero ... Juan Luis

Released by First Run Features. Director Pablo Berger. Producer Tomas Cimadevilla.

Screenplay Pablo Berger. Cinematographer Kiko de la Rica. Music Nacho Mastretta. Running time:

1 hour, 31 minutes.

Nuart, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 281-8223.

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