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Columbia TriStar Home Video presents
"Love brings pain, but you had a good time."
DVD Review"Belle époque is about the best things in life: friendship, sex and food." -director Fernando Trueba, from the commentary track
Trueba sure has figured something out, and his film demonstrates that living la dolce vita isn't the exclusive province of Italians. This movie won as Oscar®, for Best Foreign Film, in 1993, beating out such worthy competition as Farewell, My Concubine; Trueba's film may not be a profound meditation, but it's a breezy and very attractive way to pass the time.
Spain, 1931, at the height of the revolution: Fernando (Jorge Sanz), a young seminarian, has been pressed into military service, and when we meet him, he's gone AWOL. He's rousted out by two buffoonish MPs, who handcuff him and then promptly both are killed in a heated argument between them. (The older is the father-in-law of the younger, to boot.) Now Fernando is on his own, and seeks refuge in the local whorehouse, where he befriends Don Manolo (Fernando Fernán Gómez), elder gentleman of the town. Manolo looks after the young soldier, who cooks elaborate and delicious meals for his benefactor, before he can get onto the next train back to Madrid.
Don Manolo takes his young friend to the train station, where he's picking up as well as dropping off: his four fair young daughters are coming for a visit with their lonely father. Fernando gets a look at the girls, and lo and behold, conveniently fails to adhere to his travel schedule. (As Don Manolo says: "He missed his train when he got a whiff of my daughters.")
The bulk of the movie is about the relationships between Fernando and the four women: there's Violeta (Ariadna Gil), a lesbian; Amalia (Mary Carmen Ramírez), a young widow; Rocio (Mirabel Verdú, perhaps better known now for her leading role in Y tu mamá también), who is being courted by Juanito (Gabino Diego), the richest and dorkiest boy in town; and sweet virginal Luz, played by a very young Penélope Cruz. Each of the four, in their way, find Fernando irresistible, and he's got room on his dance card for each of them, in turn.
In some respect, the setup of the film is like a dirty joke about the farmer's daughters, or is like the premise of a porn film or a Penthouse Forum entry: the young stud on the run with the four sisters each ready to jump his bones. But the film's charms are bountiful, with the photogenic young cast supported by some first-rate moviemaking, and if the picture is not revelatory, it is always entertaining.
There's just a dollop of political content here, and I admit to knowing mighty little about 1930s Spanish politics; a crash course in Franco and his time might be called for if you want to savor some of the broader nuances of the piece. But Sanz is especially good as Fernando, and even better is Fernando Fernán Gómez as Don Manolo, sorry to be losing a friend to the undeniable allure of his progeny. And from an outsider's perspective, it all does feel very Spanish, with much discussion of the fates of our immortal souls peppered between tempting plates of paella (you can almost smell the saffron) and Fernando's careful unbuttoning of the women's garters. If you can pass this up, you're a more self-denying soul than I.
Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: B
Image Transfer Review: The anamorphic transfer looks luminous, if a little gauzy; that may well be the intended effect of the filmmakers, but sometimes it seems as if some Vaseline was spread on the lens. Still, the transfer looks fine, with only the occasional scratch.
Image Transfer Grade: A-
Audio Transfer Review: The original Castilian track sounds pretty clean, though a little bit of popping can be made out from time to time. One of the pleasures of the film is hearing the rolling cadences of the language, but if you're deeply averse to reading subtitles, the English-language dub track is a workmanlike substitute.
Audio Transfer Grade: B+
Disc ExtrasStatic menu
Scene Access with 28 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
3 Other Trailer(s) featuring Sense and Sensibility, All About My Mother, The Age of Innocence
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Fernando Trueba
Extras Review: The director obviously thinks of this project as a highlight of his career, and speaks of it with tremendous fondness on the commentary track. Earning particular praise are Rafael Azcona, Trueba's writing partner and one of the brightest lights of Spanish cinema (they wrote the script each day over lunch at a favorite restaurant in Madrid, no doubt accounting for the importance of food in the film), and composer Antoine Duhamel, veteran of the nouvelle vague, whose credits also include Pierrot le fou and Domicile conjugal. He also cites Renoir's Une partie de campagne as a particular inspiration for his work here.
Extras Grade: B-
Final CommentsBelle époque is smart and sexy without being overly ambitious or graphic, and looks pretty great on this disc. Vamanos!
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