- Belle Époque
- (1992)In terms of popularity and domestic critical reception as well as for its international impact, Fernando Trueba's Belle Epoque is one of the key Spanish films of the 1990s: it came as a confirmation of the strength of the Spanish cultural industry in a period of momentous changes. Not only was the film a healthy box office hit (it cost just under 2 million Euro and, by the end of 1993, the box-office take was estimated at over 4 million Euros), it also suggested a new attitude to the past that definitely left behind what some audiences were beginning to regard as excessive focus on grim memories of the Civil War. It opened in December 1992 to almost unanimous praise. Critics were generous with the performances, the luminous cinematography (by José Luis Alcaine), and the script (by Rafael Azcona, from a story by Trueba and José Luis García Sánchez). Its success was confirmed abroad: the film was subsequently presented to great acclaim at the London Film Festival in November 1993, and went on to open in the United States. It was Spain's candidate for the 1993 Oscars, was nominated in January by the Academy, and won the best foreign film Award in March 1994.The story is set a few months before the proclamation of the short-lived Spanish Republic (1931-39), rather than in the actual belle epoque (the pre-1914 years), but reflected the hopes for a peaceful future that could overcome the conservative ideals that had been imposed on Spanish identity by religious authorities and totalitarian politicians. Audiences may be aware of the threat of civil war as a shadow hanging over the characters, but the film's protagonists are given a last chance at utopia. In this contrast largely lies the effectiveness of the film. At the start, Fernando (Jorge Sanz), an ex-seminarist, has just deserted from the army in the early days of 1931, seduced by ideals of freedom. He wanders into the country house of Manolo (Fernando Fernán Gómez), an old libertarian painter and intellectual. The older man represents an open attitude toward politics and sex (he has a ZarZuela actress-singer wife who is happily living with her lover and only visits once a year) and also the possibility of dialogue with representatives of the church (the intellectual priest Don Luis played by Agustín González). The old stoic and the young man become good friends, but when the arrival of Manolo's daughters is announced, he tries to convince Fernando to leave. It will be too late: as soon as he sees them getting off the train, the young man decides to stay.From this moment, the script shifts its focus to the daughters. Having been brought up by Manolo and his eccentric wife, they represent different types of "new" womanhood: Clara (Miriam Díaz-Aroca) is a young and still-attractive widow who only misses her husband as a sex object; Violeta (Ariadna Gil) is a veterinarian characterized in terms of a dry wit and sober dress-sense; Rocío (Maribel Verdú) is sensual and frivolous; and Luz (Penélope Cruz), the youngest sister, a curious and naïve nymphet. Although intended as instances of liberated women, they are constructed to a large extent as the projections of a male heterosexual gaze, rather than autonomous characters. The women are as interested in handsome Fernando as the boy is excited by all of them: One narrative thread of the film shows Fernando being seduced in turn by each of the women.Other characters contribute to a rich frieze in which several motives typical of the historical period of the film are represented. For instance, the narrative includes Don Luis, a liberal priest who likes to play cards and is obsessed by food, but who is also a man with intellectual leanings, who has exchanged epistolary correspondence with such luminaries as Miguel de Unamuno. Another strand of the plot concerns Juanito (Gabino Diego), who is in love (or in lust) with Rocío. He belongs to a wealthy and strongly traditional family in the village, and is constantly nagged by his mother (Chus Lampreave). Juanito will renounce his beliefs and become a Republican in order to be accepted by Manolo's daughter, but is rejected when he suggests to Rocío that, in tune with the new times, they can practice "free love." Eventually, it transpires that Rocío has been using Fernando to make Juanito jealous, although she does intend to marry the latter. Fernando will eventually marry young Luz and leave for America with the girl's mother, a professional singer who makes an appearance toward the end of the film.
Historical dictionary of Spanish cinema. Alberto Mira. 2010.