Torremolinos 73 is director Pablo Berger’s first feature film, which has some irony being that it is the story of a man making his first feature film, which just so happens to be called Torremolinos 73. The film within the film, which aspires to Ingmar Bergman (Persona) and Federico Fellini (8 �), is much different, though, from Berger’s end result, which resembles more the comedies of Harold Ramis (Analyze This) or Tamara Jenkins (Slums of Beverly Hills)–not that there’s anything inherently wrong with that.
The story starts off in 1973 Madrid. Alfredo Lopez (an almost unrecognizable Javier Camara, Talk To Her) is a door-to-door salesman of a Spanish Civil War Encyclopedia. Hauling around the 3,080-page sample copy takes its toll along with broken elevators and people who disdain solicitors, which is to say everyone. Business is terrible and Alfredo’s landlady is hounding him for several months of back rent. His sole source of comfort is his wife, Carmen (Candela Pena, All About My Mother), who supplies him with tender care at home. She works in a beauty salon and has to listen to customers rant about how one of them went into Last Tango in Paris thinking it was a musical, only to encounter sodomy instead.
One day at work, his boss calls Alfredo into his office after his fifteen years of service and gives him an offer he can’t refuse (unless he wants to be fired) – go to a conference on a new product, The World Audiovisual Encyclopedia of Reproduction and become a producer of its weekly installments. These take the form of super-8 movies of Alfredo and his wife having sex while masquerading different cultural rituals. In other words, it’s porn with a rather transparent sheen of educational respectability.
Loaded with debt and faced with the prospect of making lots of money, Alfredo and his wife reluctantly embrace the new opportunity. A former assistant of Ingmar Bergman trains Alfredo and passes Bergman’s influence on to him. It turns out Alfredo is a natural behind the camera and the reserved Carmen finds enthusiasm in sex in front of the camera. Before long, Alfredo decides he wants to make his own feature-length film, a contemporary homage to The Seventh Seal, but he discovers the real world always finds a way to complicate artistic idealism.
Torremolinos 73 certainly has a promising premise and it has two fabulous leads in Camara and Pena. Camara communicates what Alfredo is thinking or feeling at every moment with just his body language and his eyes. Pena does her best to make poignant an uninspired subplot of Carmen wanting to have a child and Alfredo being oblivious to how much it means to her. The movie’s presentation of sex as more fun than erotic is also refreshing.
However, Berger’s direction is a bit too rote and the film as a whole feels overly conventional. There is the familiar womanizing loser friend who fashions himself a hustler, and many of its sex jokes were already stale in 1973. The first half is a pleasing spoof of 70’s attitudes toward sex while the second half becomes a more tiresome spoof of Euro-art filmmaking that had already reached its pinnacle in Woody Allen (Love and Death). Berger straddles the cartoonish and the naturalistic with mixed results. Ultimately, Alfredo’s comedic movie escapades and Carmen’s difficulties with having a child don’t cohere tonally, especially as they collide in the end. Camara and Pena almost lift it above an amusing diversion, but not quite.