Film Reviews

Den of Iniquity

A bit of advice when considering whether to see Bear Cub, a lovely new drama from Spanish director Miguel Albaladejo: Ignore the title. Also, if you would, please bypass the cringe-worthy pun of the tagline, "Parenthood is about to get a little hairier." Because quite apart from those cutesy and unfortunate bits of marketing (both of which set expectations at rock-bottom), this film is a delight. Gentle, moving, and well crafted, Bear Cub presents tabloid-style issues with a humane, matter-of-fact frankness. It also manages to introduce a gay subculture with lighthearted humor and patience, allowing the viewer to glean relevant details instead of attempting to educate us with didacticism. In short, it's a good movie.

Pedro (José Luis García Pérez) is a gay man living in Madrid and surrounded by a den of like-bodied "bears," his tubby and hairy gay brethren. When Pedro's nephew Bernardo (David Castillo) arrives for a two-week stay, Pedro does not welcome the parental burden, which chastens him, but he assumes it with kindness, if not perfection. He'd prefer to be out clubbing, or cruising for bears on the streets and engaging in anonymous ursine sex, but he wants to do right by his nephew.

Then Bernardo's mother (Violeta, played by Elvira Lindo), away in India, gets into trouble, and Pedro must parent for real. Suddenly, he's forced to contend with Bernardo's vicious grandmother (Empar Ferrer), a bitter woman who wants to take the boy away, and with his own feelings of fatherly love for the boy. What follows is an honest examination of human relationships, regardless of signifiers -- age, gender, sexual orientation, whatever.

It's worth noting that the sex has been all but bowdlerized from the American print. In the Spanish version, the film opens with a graphic scene between two men -- bears both, of course -- in Pedro's bed (where, presumably, he had earlier joined them). Allow me to inform you that the scene involved an erect penis, a great deal of flesh of every kind, and much grunting. Frankly, it's not every day that you see two large, hairy men going at it full-tilt on the large screen, and the sheer daring (at the opening of the film, no less) was admirable. Of course, this kind of thing tends not to survive the voyage over the Atlantic, for which you can feel free to blame the red states. So if the sex is your motivation for seeing this film, you'll have to hunt down the Spanish DVD.

But it shouldn't be. Bear Cub is worth seeing for its calm, apt depiction of its principal characters, the uncle and nephew, and of their relationship. Bernardo is a rich character, a precocious boy who's far more comfortable with sexuality (and other adult material) than his uncle imagines, and Castillo plays him with an open and tender heart. (When Pedro chastises a friend for beginning to roll a joint in front of Bernardo, the boy explains that he already knows how to roll -- though not smoke -- his own.) Pedro is equally engaging, a bit of a loner despite his pack of friends, still grieving the loss of a boyfriend to AIDS. He's silly on the subject of tears, attempting to prevent Bernardo from crying in an effort to be "strong," but we forgive him. He nearly always delivers his anti-crying pronouncements when he is himself awash in tears.

Bear Cub also has a sweet, subtle sense of humor. For instance: Violeta's hippie boyfriend, Borja (Cali Caballero), never says a word. He just ambles about, bearded and thin in floppy clothing, floating in his love-bubble. At the airport, while Violeta and Bernardo share an emotional goodbye, the camera follows Borja through the metal detector, which he keeps setting off. He steps back, unloads his pockets, and walks through again, only to beep again. The moment is quiet, unadvertised, and hilarious, especially against the tension of the mother-son goodbye.

Bear Cub has a few faults. Its music, for one, is amateur, a kind of tinny, synthesized jazz that sounds as though someone were just starting out with a new Casio and couldn't quite get over the drum machine. A late-in-the-film revelation is a bit over the top, piling on an emotional burden that the story doesn't need. (The conflict, between a loving uncle and nephew who are happy with each other and a hardened grandmother who uses blackmail to get her way, is already there.) And Bear Cub ends too neatly. The last fifteen minutes attempt to summarize six or seven years in a flurry of letters and vignettes, and they don't work. Albaladejo wants a happy ending, and his characters deserve one, but not at the expense of the film's integrity.

Still, none of these faults matters much. The film rises above them, just as it transcends its title, tagline, and, while we're at it, poster. Marketing notwithstanding, Bear Cub is a success.