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ROMP AND CIRCUMSTANCE

The ironically titled Belle Epoque ("Beautiful Age"), winner of the most recent Oscar for Best Foreign Film, is a playful Spanish sex farce that unfolds during the brief honeymoon between the bloodless overthrow of the Spanish monarchy in 1931 and the rise of the Fascists five years later in the country's appalling civil war.

There are some moments in Fernando Trueba's high-spirited bow to passion and personal freedom when even well-read Americans may find themselves dusting off their ancient world history texts in order to decipher the names of decades-old political personalities and revolutionary events casually tossed around here. But the bawdy tale at the core needs no translation.

In 1931, Fernando (Jorge Sanz), a handsome young deserter from Spain's confused and divided army, takes refuge in a country brothel, where he meets a card-playing, sponging village priest (Agustin Gonzalez) and a witty, anarchistic old painter, Manolo (Fernando Fernan Gomez) who regrets "not being born among heathens" and "not being called up for the army--so I could desert." The wide-eyed boy winds up spending the night at the old artist's house, and is just about to catch the train for Madrid when he catches sight of the passengers alighting from the other direction--Manolo's four gorgeous daughters.

Classic bedroom farce cannot be far behind. In short order, the mannish daughter Violeta (Ariadna Gil), the flirtatious Rocio (Maribel Verdu), the merry widow Clara (Miriam D’az-Aroca) and the shy baby Luz (Penelope Cruz) all seduce and confound the young hero. Italian and French filmmakers have been mining this comic vein uncensored for forty years, so the latter-day Spanish version of domestic hanky-panky isn't exactly a revelation. But in his seventh and most successful film, director Trueba has some other matters on his mind as well. For one thing, he deftly satirizes the hypocritical Spanish clergy of the Thirties (explaining his gambling, the priest theorizes: "I must be where sin is"). For another, he absolutely skewers all anti-Republican snobs. In the pungent portraits of Rocio's rich but foolish suitor, Juanito (Gabino Diego), and that boy's domineering witch of a mother (Chus Lampreave), we see where this democratic filmmaker's sympathies lie.

In essence, they lie with young Fernando, who embodies the country's uncertain, unformed future, and with Manolo, an ancient spirit so free that he welcomes into his home even the bewildered lover of his globe-trotting, opera-singing wife, Amalia (Mary Carmen Ram’rez), who has returned to see her girls.

This is not the most original film ever made, but there's such sensuous joy wrapped around its underlying social and political commentary that we find ourselves grinning happily all the way through--as if Cervantes himself had taken up a camera and pointed it once again at one of the world's most complex and ebullient cultures.

The performances are uniformly superb, the rural settings breathtaking. Amid those pleasures, we also leave this romp wiser.

 
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