Watching Belle Epoque on a Sunday afternoon with a capacity audience that laughed eagerly and affectionately at the movie’s irreverent swipes at religion, patriotism, adultery, hypocrisy, and the mysterious siren calls of the flesh, I started thinking about God. More to the point, I started thinking about how a movie like this year’s Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Film, a sexy pastoral comedy set in 1931 Spain, has no equivalent in this country. We have no parallel for the kind of confident familiarity filmmakers of other, smaller countries maintain with religion as an everyday force that shapes attitudes about patriotism, adultery, etc., in ways big and small, amusing and sobering. This is not just a matter of our separation of church and state, or our tendency toward artistic wussiness in the face of correctness police and focus groups. It’s also because America is huge and varied, with a thousand points of view, while Spain — for example — is much smaller, much more homogeneous, and much more likely to share a common appreciation of the peaceful coexistence of priests, widows, virgins, soldiers, and lovers who don’t preface their lovemaking with educational dialogue about safe sex.
Directed by Fernando Trueba, Rafael Azcona’s story couldn’t be simpler or more farcical on the face of it: A handsome army deserter (Jorge Sanz) is befriended by an iconoclastic old painter (Fernando Fernan Gomez, looking like a plump Ray Walston) who turns out to have four luscious, unmarried daughters — wink wink — each of whom has a hunger, in her way, for their house guest. Yet for the women — and for their father, and for a gawky local suitor, and for the wily village priest who makes himself at home at the family dinner table — the young man becomes a blank canvas on which Trueba and Azcona draw quick sketches of human comedy, tinted with real emotion. And pretty soon, believers and apostates, winners and losers in love are revealed, without condescension, to be touching, brave, hot-blooded human beings — as modern and as varied as you and me, only less likely to clear their throats nervously when the conversation turns to sex, religion, or politics. B-