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‘Belle Epoque’

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 25, 1994


Fernando Trueba
Jorge Sanz;
Fernando Fernan Gomez;
Ariadna Gil;
Penelope Cruz
sexual situations,
Forein Film

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A recipe for sensual self-expression, Spain's Oscar-winning "Belle Epoque" is a sizzling second helping for those who crave more of "Like Water for Chocolate." The film is lighter and fluffier than last year's popular Mexican romance, but its chief ingredients are the same: lots of food and lots of sex. Director Fernando Trueba draws ingratiating performances from his players, but otherwise seems to have little more to say here than bon appetit.

Set in 1931, this sunny pastorale turns on the amorous adventures of Fernando (Jorge Sanz), a Bambi-faced young deserter who becomes the cook for a witty old painter, Manolo (Fernando Fernan Gomez), and is subsequently seduced by his four daughters.

Rocio (Maribel Verdu), the family tease, is the first to raise Fernando's temperature, chiefly to motivate her clownish fiance, a wealthy mama's boy. However, it is the cynical lesbian Violeta (Ariadna Gil) who initially seduces Fernando at the town carnival. As Violeta thinks of herself as a man, it helps that Fernando is costumed as a maid.

After Violeta laughs off his marriage proposal the following morning, Fernando finds solace in the arms of Rocio, then the widowed Clara (Miriam Diaz-Aroca) and finally the virgin Luz (Penelope Cruz), the only one who offers true love. When the fun and games have seemingly reached a climax, the family matriarch (Mary Carmen Ramirez), who is an opera singer, returns from a world tour with her manager-lover (Michel Galabru).

After all are sated sexually, the family decides to go on a picnic on the banks of a river, where Fernando serves an excellent paella, a green salad and a fresh rabbit shot by Violeta. The light peeks through the leaves of the trees as the tale moves toward its conclusion, a bittersweet one that is revealed when Fernando finally picks his favorite dish. The point: Don't approach your love life as if you were loading up at an all-you-can-eat salad bar.

Trueba and screenwriter Rafael Azcona base their work on a concept the French call "l'embarras du choix," which, according to the press kit, has to do with the difficulty of "choosing one thing over another while respecting the boundaries of freedom." The film owes still more than its philosophy and title to the French; it also knowingly draws on the textures of Jean Renoir's bucolic works -- specifically the short film "A Day in the Country," from the story by Guy de Maupassant.

"Belle Epoque," which was shot in Portugal, has a sun-soaked lyricism that is offset by Trueba's occasional attempts to address the politics of the period. He expresses his ideas -- that war is hell, that choosing sides is silly even if choosing mates is not -- chiefly through ancillary characters, including the village cleric. The poor old dear kills himself when he learns the church-backed monarchy is on the run from the republican revolutionaries. A dead priest can sure lay a pall over a romantic comedy.

"Belle Epoque, in Spanish with English subtitles, is rated R for sexual situations,

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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