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‘Belle Epoque’

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 25, 1994


Fernando Trueba
Jorge Sanz;
Fernando Fernan Gomez;
Ariadna Gil;
Penelope Cruz
Under 17 restricted
Foreign Film

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As he accepted the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film last Monday, "Belle Epoque" filmmaker Fernando Trueba said -- in place of the God he didn't believe in -- he'd thank famed Hollywood director Billy Wilder. It isn't Wilder, however, who permeates "Belle Epoque."

This lighthearted Spanish comedy suggests a mediterranean "Tom Jones" directed by Jean Renoir. On one level, it's a bedroom farce about the joys of passionate, bucolic union between the sexes. But it's also a tender and humanistic saga, punctuated with amusing digs at church, marriage and politics.

A deserter from the civil war in the early 1930s, handsome, wide-eyed Fernando (Jorge Sanz) is befriended by a painter called Manolo (Fernando Fernan Gomez), who happens to have four stunningly beautiful daughters. By the way they all gaze at Fernando, and the way he returns the compliment, you know the innocent little rascal is going to bed with the lot of them.

One by one (in tasteful but zesty encounters), each daughter gets her due with Fernando. Each time, Fernando, a political and romantic naif, believes this one is the real thing.

There's a joy-of-farce momentum, as he bounces from tomboyish cross-dresser Violeta (Ariadna Gil) to flirtatious Rocio (Maribel Verdu) to lonely widow Clara (Miriam Diaz-Aroca) to virginal Luz (Penelope Cruz). "Love brings pain," Rocio laments to Fernando. "But you had a good time."

Beyond the bed-hopping, "Belle Epoque," which also won nine Goyas (the Spanish equivalent of the Oscars), is delightful for the characters on the sidelines who expand the world of this movie. There are the two soldiers from the Civil Guard (a veteran and his gung-ho son-in-law), who conduct a furious gun-toting debate over the fate of captured prisoner Fernando. Their standoff leads to a tragicomic conclusion worthy of Luis Bunuel. There's the local priest (Agustin Gonzalez), who's up for a round of poker, a leer at the daughters and a free dinner any time.

Most significantly of all, there's veteran actor Gomez, who imbues Manolo's character with masterfully funny utterances. In one existential speech, he sums up the mood of this movie, as he lists the three frustrations of his life. The first is for not being born among heathens. The second is that his bad feet prevented him from being enlisted -- and so prevented him from deserting. His third problem is that he can only be aroused by his wife, making it impossible to cheat.

"Here I am a rebel, an infidel and a libertine by nature," he says sadly, "but living life like a scared old bourgeois."

BELLE EPOQUE (R) -- In Spanish with subtitles.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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