Written and directed by Pablo Berger
Starring Javier Cámara and Candela Peña, with Juan Diego, Malena Alterio, Fernando Tejero, Mads Mikkelsen
91 minutes; in Spanish with English subtitles
Torremolinos 73, a shorter, sweeter version of Boogie Nights minus that film’s self-importance, looks back to a simpler time in the history of pornography. On its own terms this clever, off-beat Spanish-language film from writer/director Pablo Berger works surprisingly well, mainly thanks to its two leads, Javier Cámara and Candela Peña.
Torremolinos 73 reminded me of several theories I’ve entertained over the years about why the vast majority of pornographic films are bad (aesthetically, not morally—that’s another discussion). There’s the numbers argument, which says that if one considered the sheer volume of all films, of all types, that are produced, one would have to say that the vast majority of “regular” films are also bad. It’s the small number of artistic, entertaining, high-quality exceptions that become memorable moviegoing experiences, win awards, and will eventually end up on a mid-21 st-century version of Turner Classic Movies.
Given the numbers game that stacks the deck against all movies, pornographic films operate under several additional handicaps. For one thing, they are produced for minimum cost and maximum profit, limiting their budgets considerably. Another factor is that the pool of available actors is necessarily slim, consisting of people able and willing to do the nasty on-camera and more than likely chosen not for conventional acting skills but for physical attributes and the ability to simulate “passion” in what must often be unconducive surroundings.
Still, I’ve often wondered if there are deeper reasons for pornography’s amateurishness and awfulness. Is there something inherent that gets in the way of their value as a movie? This is the “intention” argument: that because porn films are made to stimulate a very specific response in the viewer, aesthetics (or even just competence) are really beside the point. If traditional film “quality” snuck into a XXX film, it would probably interfere with the movie’s prime purpose.
But all films are designed to stimulate some kind of response in the viewer. Two of the last century’s most celebrated directors, Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick, were very concerned with audience provocation and response in their work, and continually sought ways to evoke very specific reactions from their audiences. I’ll bet Kubrick was fascinated by pornography: Kirk Douglas, in a 1970 Roger Ebert interview, said that Kubrick had wanted to make a pornographic film with real Hollywood actors and a feature-size budget, “and then maybe only show it in one country, like Switzerland, and fly people in to see it.” Can you imagine Mister “75 Takes and I’m Just Warming Up” trying to film high-class smut? You thought Eyes Wide Shut took a long time to shoot?
The question remains, however: Are pornographic films by their very nature trash, or are they in some strange way the purest kind of cinema art?
Torremolinos 73 applies a light touch to such pseudo-heavy musings, in a fable-like tale of two ordinary people for whom pornography becomes the means to fulfill their creative dreams. Alfredo (Cámara) and his wife Carmen (Peña) are at the end of their financial rope. His job as a door-to-door encyclopedia salesman in early 1970s Madrid is a dead end, and they are hanging on to their lower-middle-class lifestyle by their fingertips. Their unlikely salvation comes when Alfredo’s boss Carlos (Juan Diego) decides to produce Super-8 home movies/skin flicks for distribution in Scandinavia, using his salespeople and their spouses as actors and directors.
Berger neatly captures both their dilemma as well as the repressive milieu of Franco-era Spain. American husbands and wives of this period may have been smoking weed and attending key parties, but Catholic, late-Fascist Spain was closer to the 1950s than the Swingin’ 60s-70s. Torremolinos 73 has the flat look and monochromatic lighting that not only evokes the blandness of the period but also the bare-bones ethic of the era’s pornography (credit to cinematographer Kiko de la Rica).
To their surprise, Alfredo and Carmen turn out to be naturals: he behind the camera, she in front. Peña, a petite, lovely actress with appealingly large eyes, creates a complex character in Carmen, who has her own reasons for participating beyond the financial ones: she’s desperate to have a baby.
The aggressively ordinary-looking Cámara has an Everyman face that’s put to good use here. He imbues Alfredo with the desire to create as well, but his “babies” are the films he and Carmen produce. There’s a funny montage as the couple adopt in rapid succession the familiar costumes and “characters” of smut: he the horny deliveryman, she the blushing bride, the barely legal soccer player, the naughty nurse.
Torremolinos turns more serious as Alfredo, like many a creative artist before him, dreams bigger. He wants to make a “real,” i.e. non-pornographic, movie, starring Carmen and done in the style of his new idol Ingmar Bergman (with a little Fellini—dwarves at a deserted carnival—thrown in for good measure). Carlos, who has become a budding porn film mogul, agrees to finance the venture, and the movie’s last third covers the film shoot at an off-season seaside resort. The comedy here comes from language barriers (the crew and male star are Scandinavian) and off-camera shenanigans, while Alfredo and Carmen’s story becomes a more serious drama. I won’t say more than that both husband and wife finally get at least some version of what they’re seeking.
Torremolinos 73’s clever plot and mix of comedy and drama mostly works, though the film has its faults. The middle section drags, in large part because few of the characters besides the two leads are more than barely sketched in. There are hints of stories that would have made amusing, relevant subplots if developed just a bit further, which would have helped the film’s overall structure.
On the whole, though, it’s good that Torremolinos focuses on Alfredo and Carmen. Berger, whose first feature film this is, has two skilled actors for these key parts. Peña handles her character’s transformations convincingly, no easy feat. Cámara, who has recently played widely varying characters for Pedro Almodóvar (he was the coma victim’s nurse in Talk to Her and a bitchy drag performer in Bad Education), is totally believable as a regular guy who unexpectedly discovers the artist within. Cámara’s expressive face takes us through all the confusion, frustration, ambition and joy that Alfredo feels, and it’s an enjoyable ride.