One of the highlights of last year’s Spanish program at the Walter Reade was Ventura Pons’s Caresses, an omnisexual roundelay about the trials of urban love. This year, the series offers a six-film sidebar on the Catalan director, his first retro in this country. Pons began in the theater, entering cinema as a documentarist with Ocana, Intermittent Portrait (1978), a touching look at a village boy who became a painter and one of Barcelona’s most famous transvestites. Pons’s newest feature, Beloved/Friend, concerns a terminally ill professor of medieval literature who is in love with one of his students, a brilliant but wild orphaned youth who moonlights as a male hustler. This intense and beautifully written film about inheritances and survival benefits from an exceptional cast, with especially fine work by Josep Maria Pou as the dying prof.
The most impressive debut feature of the series is Benito Zambrano’s Alone, the deceptively simple story of a country girl, victim of an abusive father, who moves to the city, takes a menial job, and soon finds herself pregnant and abandoned. Salvation arrives in the form of an equally lost soul, a cantankerous old neighbor (Carlos Alvarez, a luminous performance)—the character is in a direct line from De Sica’s classic Umberto D.
A more mainstream entertainment, Antonio Hernandez’s Lisbon is a solid road movie involving a Portuguese porn-video salesman who picks up an elegant hitchhiker (Carmen Maura); once they’ve had a go at clumsy restroom sex, he finds out that she’s fleeing her murderous husband who has just whacked her lover. Maura brings depth and dignity to the role of lady-on-the-lam; delightful Sergi Lopez steals the movie as her clueless, good-natured chauffeur.
Although Spanish cinema does seem blessed nowadays with a reservoir of first-rate acting talent, performances are often gummed up in films whose scripts fail to deliver. In Manuel Iborra’s Pepe Guindo, veteran Fernando Fernan-Gomez, as an aging stage star, is in top form, but the film piles cliché on cliché. In Washington Wolves, Mariano Barros’s sloppily plotted thriller about a bunch of luckless criminals, Spain’s hunkiest leading man, Javier Bardem, is underutilized in a one-dimensional role as an alcoholic slob. In Between Your Legs, Manuel Gomez Pereira’s ugly, incoherent neo-noir, Bardem is also wasted as a writer who attends group therapy sessions for sex addicts.
The most overstuffed turkey in the show is Goya in Bordeaux by the unstoppable Carlos Saura. Francisco Rabal, memorable protagonist of several Buñuel masterpieces, has been encouraged to chew the scenery to bits. We’re not spared anything—there’s even a hallucination scene in which Goya’s greatest engravings come to life.