This year's Oscar-winner for best foreign-language film, "Belle Epoque" is a charming little romantic comedy with political underpinnings and sexy metaphors. In spirit, there is a strong resemblance to "Like Water for Chocolate," though without that film's emotional tug.
On the surface, "Belle Epoque" centers on the experiences of a young, naive army deserter named Fernando (Jorge Sanz, who bears more than a passing resemblance to Robert Downey Jr.). It is early 1931 when the film opens, and Fernando has been traveling country roads for several months. He is arrested by a pair of policemen who plan to take him in until they are disrupted by their own divided loyalties about ruling factions.
The still handcuffed Fernando gets away and seeks shelter for the night at a local brothel, but he is soon taken in by the kindly Manolo (Fernando Fernan Gomez), who puts Fernando up at his villa. In the days that follow, they become fast friends, Fernando proving to be an amazing cook.
But when Manolo's four sexy daughters announce that they are coming for an unexpected visit, Manolo shoos Fernando away, reasoning that if Fernando meets and falls for any of his daughters, Manolo will gain a son-in-law and lose a close friend.
Reluctantly, Fernando agrees to leave but when he sees the foursome getting off the train, he is immediately smitten and conveniently misses his own train out of town.
What follows is an unexpected series of trysts, as Fernando is surprisingly seduced by each of the daughters and each time falls in love with the seducer. But in fact, as you may suspect, his true love is the one he ignores until the film is nearly over.
The daughters, played individually and with panache by Maribel Verdu, Ariadna Gil, Miriam Diaz-Aroca and Penelope Cruz (Cruz was recently seen in "Jamon Jamon"), provide distinctive characters, not just "types," and the success of their portrayals that is one reason the film works so well. (The film is also dotted with an array of hysterically eccentric supporting characters.)
Director Fernando Trueba and screenwriter Rafael Azcona have chosen to tell their story with a minimum of exploitation and have layered the film with subtext. Fernando's indecision, his inability to decide who he loves and where his loyalties lie, represents Spain during the upheaval of civil war.
Such resonances probably mean a lot more for Spanish and European audiences in general than they do American audiences. (The deaths that open and close the film may seem startling to those who do not understand Spain's history and culture.) But it will not lessen the entertainment value here, which is tremendous. "Belle Epoque" is funny and bright and most enjoyable.
It is not rated but would probably get an R for violence, sexual activity, profanity and brief partial nudity.