STARTING OUT as a wacky little comedy about a mousy Spanish couple who become unwitting porn stars, "Torremolinos 73" suddenly morphs, during the third act, into a far more sober and tender story about the lengths to which a man will go to give his wife what she wants. It works, but just barely (no pun intended, considering all the nudity).
Wait a minute. Back up to that part about the "unwitting porn stars." Oh yeah, that.
The year is 1973. Lots of bad fashion, feathered hair and mustaches. After struggling to make ends meet, door-to-door encyclopedia salesman Alfredo (Javier Camara) is given an offer he can't refuse: Join a new venture of the publishing firm he works for making educational films about human reproduction and starring your, ahem, hot wife, Carmen (Candela Pena), or start looking for other work. Boom. Out of the blue, Alfredo finds, to his amazement, that he's really, really good at something for the first time in his life.
Well, at least that's what his boss, Carlos (Juan Diego), tells him. Destined solely for a Scandinavian audience (a rationale Alfredo and Carmen use to overcome their initial fears of embarrassing themselves in front of their friends), the short movies Alfredo makes turn out to be popular not so much for their director's cinematographic skills as for Carmen's, er, exuberant screen presence.
See, what Carmen and Alfredo have been making, unbeknownst to them, are not audiovisual aids on the subject of contemporary mating habits after all, but fodder for the adult entertainment industry. After a while, though, Alfredo, who has been starting to fancy himself a second Ingmar Bergman, talks Carlos into letting him film a feature from a script called "Torremolinos 73," after the Spanish seaside resort town he has decided to shoot in. One condition, says Carlos: Carmen must star in it. (And if you think Carlos is going to want her to take her clothes off before it wraps, you're right.)
Up to now, the film has been a lark. Alfredo's ever-more imaginative Super-8 movies are goofily life- and lust-affirming, and there's something about the sight of him, in his bald head, tighty-whities and black socks, jumping from behind the camera to his wife's bedside, that's endearingly nebbishy. Right about the time of the arrival of the "professional" Danish film crew Carlos has hired to work on "Torremolinos 73" (four guys who speak no Spanish and who always seem to be saying something filthy to one another in Danish), the movie takes a turn for the serious. I mean the movie we're watching, not the one Alfredo is making -- despite the fact that his pet project is in black-and-white and the dialogue seems lifted straight out of "The Seventh Seal."
That's because writer-director Pablo Berger at this point introduces a plot element, having to do with Carmen's desire to have a baby, that will be more familiar to viewers from melodrama than comedy. What the movie comes down to, in the end, is a second instance of Alfredo confronting an impossible choice, neither of which will make him entirely happy, and both of which involve a certain measure of defeat.
But what looks like Alfredo's acceptance of humiliation at the hands of another man (Mads Mikkelsen) is actually, in ways so subtle that it's easy to miss, a supreme act of love. As Alfredo's Danish mentor (Tom Jacobsen), a filmmaker who claims to have worked with Bergman, keeps repeating to his protege, "The camera is your eye. . . . The camera is your heart." In "Torremolinos 73," it may also be a stand-in for other body parts as well.
TORREMOLINOS 73 (Unrated, 91 minutes) -- Contains sex scenes, nudity and some obscenity. In Spanish and Danish with subtitles. At Landmark's E Street Cinema.