Say what you will about the sorry state of theatrical film exhibition in South Florida; some of our local movie houses are at least trying to remedy the situation. One of the most popular offerings from the 1993 Miami Film Festival, Bigas Luna's Jam centsn Jam centsn, did not begin its theatrical run in this town until ten months after its Festival premiere. It was still playing when the 1994 Miami Film Festival began.

This year, thanks in large part to the efforts of AMC's Gourmet Cinema program A a sort of arthouse-within-a-multiplex experiment A the big guns from the fest are arriving in a much more timely fashion. After its debut with a non-festival entry (The War Room), Gourmet Cinema has booked three Festival offerings in a row: Fiorile, Four Weddings and a Funeral and Belle epoque. In this reviewer's opinion, the latter two films (along with Almod centsvar's latest, Kika, which should be on the Gourmet Cinema menu before summer) were the highlights of the 1994 fest.

Oddly enough, there are more than a few similarities between Weddings and Epoque. On the most superficial level, the number four figures prominently in both films A in Belle epoque it's the number of comely sisters who seduce a lovestruck army deserter, and in Four Weddings and a Funeral it's the quartet of nuptial ceremonies suggested by the title. A spirit of benign, romantic humanism with spiked edges infuses the two movies as well; the unexpected deaths of a pair of lovable louts provide sobering counterpoint to the lighthearted farces that they punctuate. And in both films it's the male protagonist who is seduced and the women who call the shots. (Forgive my editorial bias, but I find that a particularly refreshing trend.)

They used to call guys like Charles, the acerbic young Brit at the heart of Four Weddings and a Funeral, confirmed bachelors. He professes to be looking for true love, but he cannot seem to meet the right woman, and not for lack of trying. You get the feeling early on that Charles is just another one of those guys who talks a great game but whose knees buckle at the sound of the M-word.

True to form, he meets Carrie, a beautiful, mysterious American in a silly hat at a friend's wedding, and any idiot can see he's a goner. Charles falls hard, but he refuses to admit it. Much of the film's charm comes from situations like that A the audience knows the character better than he knows himself. Carrie, too, is smitten, but she is Charles's equal in denial. She beds him shortly after the reception, spends a passionate night with him in her hotel room, and catches a plane back to America before lunch the following day.

They are, of course, destined to meet again, and again, and again. The pattern is predictable, and the ending is traditional cornball. But forget the plot; it's of no consequence in lighthearted boy-meets-girl fare like this. From It Happened One Night to Annie Hall, it's the same old story. The fun is all in the details.

And the details of Four Weddings and a Funeral are juicy indeed. For starters, there are Hugh Grant and Andie MacDowell as Charles and Carrie. The blue-eyed Englishman proves himself quite the erudite charmer, calling to mind another Grant who made a few good romantic comedies in his day. MacDowell is her usual radiant self; she makes a tantalizing seductress.

Author Richard Curtis and director Newell (Enchanted April) alternately skewer and celebrate the institution of matrimony more sharply than any other English-language movie in recent memory. All the familiar elements take their turn: There's a wedding reception from Hell (Charlie is seated at a table with four of his ex-lovers, each of whom recalls an indiscreet anecdote Charlie previously related to her about one of the others present); a nervous priest who blesses husband and wife "in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Goat"; a bride who tosses a bouquet while her newly betrothed flings an inflatable doll; and an insufferable folk-singing duo who embody the embarrassing musical interludes starry-eyed couples always seem to incorporate into their nuptials. On top of all that, of course, there is plenty of drunkenness, bad dancing, and unlikely liaisons (only one of which is Charlie and Carrie's).

The acting ensemble, which in addition to Charlie and Carrie features roughly a dozen supporting characters prominently, wrings every ounce of piquant jocularity and bittersweet irony out of Curtis's waggish wordplay. (Example: A grief-stricken lover eulogizes his deceased paramour: "His recipe for duck … la banana thankfully goes with him to his grave.") From the opening titles to the closing credits, Four Weddings is a caustic comedy that cracks the combination of holy wedlock.

Like Charlie, the young hero of Belle epoque is a slightly befuddled victim of love. The first time you see Spanish army deserter Fernando, hiding from a militia patrol in a patch of bushes by the side of the road, his pants are at his knees. He will spend the rest of the movie dropping his knickers in this lusty Spanish comedy, but never as the result of a liaison of his own making.

Belle epoque is at once anarchic and conventional, comic and tragic, sentimental and sensual. The humor is always character-driven, eliciting ironic chuckles to full-blown belly laughs. After his brush with the militia, Fernando stumbles into the nearest town looking for a good whorehouse. He finds the bordello, where he also encounters the local priest A and card shark A Don Luis, and a semi-retired painter, Manolo. Manolo and the youth quickly become friends as Fernando cooks dinner in exchange for a night's lodging, and Manolo reveals the three big frustrations of his own life: not being born among heathens so that he could rebel against the church, getting passed up by the army because of flat feet so he couldn't desert, and being impotent with all women other than his wife, so he can't cheat. "I couldn't rebel against the church, the army, or matrimony, along with banking the four most reactionary institutions in the world. Here I am a rebel, an infidel, and a libertine by nature, living life like a scared old bourgeois," the wisened painter confides.

You can see the comic possibilities coming from a mile away when Manolo's four beautiful daughters arrive on the train from Madrid. After some heavy flirtations, Fernando is seduced by one after another, each in her own peculiar fashion. There's macho Violeta who's into role reversal, flirtatious Rocio who's engaged to a wealthy mama's boy, grieving Clara whose husband drowned, and ripe, virginal Luz, the only one who truly loves Fernando. Although the young lad doesn't realize it at the time, this is his belle epoque (beautiful time).

Director Fernando Trueba has, in past interviews, described Belle epoque as "the story of Paradise: too good to last." During a recent interview with New Times he elaborated on that assessment and explained the unorthodox way the idea for the story came about. "Belle epoque is an homage to a kind of movie that doesn't exist anymore. It's an attempt to recapture the atmosphere and spirit of the movies of people like Jean Renoir, movies from the past that gave me so much pleasure. [Screenplay collaborators] Rafael Azcona, Jose Luis Garcia Sanchez, and I used to have lunch together every day. We would talk about the projects we were working on. One day I had this idea for a movie that would become the basis for Belle epoque. Nobody had paid for it; there was no producer waiting for it. We started to talk about this idea. We worked on it for a year and a half, every day, in an atmosphere of jokes, laughs, friendship, and good meals. The script reflects that atmosphere."

It's hard to imagine a Trueba film being anything else. The unassuming, jeans-and-T-shirt-clad writer-director is a reformed movie critic (he served a stint in the Seventies as reviewer for Spain's leading news daily, El Pais) whose passion for the comedies of Billy Wilder, Ernst Lubitsch, Preston Sturges, and Woody Allen is a driving force behind his own work. "Woody Allen is the most important living director working, because Billy Wilder is still alive but not making films. Hannah and Her Sisters is a masterpiece. When I made my first film, Opera prima, I was obsessed with Annie Hall."

Belle epoque, however, has softer edges and a far less neurotic core than Allen's films. The balmy ambiance running throughout the film creates the impression that the characters' hands are being guided by a benevolent supreme being, which isn't far from the truth. "I don't try to do realistic movies, to reproduce life. With this film I just wanted to create my little oasis, a micro-world where love is not the prerequisite for sex. A garden of liberty. Not some idiot optimistic thing where life is always wonderful. You have to respect other people's ideas, feelings, and behavior. That's the thing. Life can be wonderful, if you fight for that."

And so can the movies, sometimes.


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