When the Academy Awards choose their winner for Best Foreign Film based on two criteria. The film has to be unbearably depressing, or relentlessly upbeat and feel-good. Thankfully, for my sanity during this particular viewing, the 1992 Spanish film Belle Epoque falls into the latter. It is a film about lust, love and friendship that spans generations, gender and class. It is also an extremely idealistic film in its portrayals of a war torn Spain that manages to exist harmoniously despite divisive political and religious beliefs. As I noted in a previous review on All About My Mother, melodrama is a staple of Spanish movies. It relies on all the elements of the genre, including over acting, emotion inducing music and visual textures that seem at times surreal. Despite being a rather conventional film, Belle Epoque is humorous, enjoyable, and a great study on the frivolous leanings of young love.
The film begins with a young man named Fernando (Jorge Sanz) avoiding detection after desertion from the Franco Army. After a close brush with local law enforcement Fernado meets the elderly Manolo (Fernando Gomez) who is belligerently against the war and while literally impotent, sees Fernando as a vision his younger self. After a night of drinking and talking, Fernando departs from Manolo. Upon walking to his train for Madrid, Fernando views Manolo's gorgeous daughters arriving. Infatuated with the four daughters Fernando purposefully misses his train and asks to stay with Manolo. What occurs next is awkward sexual relationships with three of the four daughters, one who is bisexual, another who is widowed and one who has an off-and-on relationship with the local momma's boy. The only girl Fernando overlooks is the youngest, and arguably most attractive, of the daughters Luz, played by a young and wide-eyed Penelope Cruz. Amidst religious divides, underground rebellion and unscheduled visits from world famous flamenco singers, Fernando and Luz end up together at the alter. In a sweet, yet bitter, closing scene Manolo watches the couple ride off to Madrid realizing he is yet again alone and left merely to exist in his old age.
The film deals with love liberally. The types of relationships displayed in the film are as broad as they are complex. Obviously the film deals heavily with sexual love as it relates to Fernando, the sisters and even clergymen. It depicts physical love, however, as a lower form used primarily for gratification, as opposed to stability or comfort. The film invests greatly, as it should, in notions of emotional love. Each of the sisters comes to respect Fernando and love him for his good nature and excellent cooking skills. They are able to forgive both themselves and him for their sexual encounters, realizing that the fleeting intimacy is far inferior to lifelong bonds of friendship. Given this, it is easy to understand why Fernando and Luz end up together, she is the only one of the sisters to project this notion of love from the films onset. While less obvious, the film does play on non-biological familial love. This is evident in the relationship between Manolo and Fernando, one that Manolo claims to be purely friendship. However, it is obvious that Manolo seeks to be a father figure to Fernando, particularly in regards to teaching him the world of politics. In fact, Manolo and Fernando's first night as friends is spent together in Manolo's room, a completely platonic moment that still serves as a reminder of the frail barrier between the emotional and physical realms of relationships. Belle Epoque posits a fluidity of relationships that can be as simple as loving ones mother, or allowing your wife to knowingly make you a cuckold.
Belle Epoque is a sweet movie and one well worth watching. I would not go out of my way to purchase it personally, but a rental from Netflix is highly suggested.