By Sean Axmaker
Pablo Berger's Torremolinos '73 is one of the funniest and slyest satires ever to come out of Spain, a social satire of the country in the last days of Franco's dictatorship as seen from the perspective of an ordinary middle class couple with an unusual career path. Unassuming door-to-door salesman Alfredo (Javier CámaraCandela Peña) revitalize their sex life by play-acting short fantasies for Alfredo's Super-8 camera, hoping to finally get pregnant. While he becomes obsessed with filmmaking and decides to try his hand at a "serious" film (inspired by his love of Bergman movies), his playful little cinematic romps have turned Carmen into a porn superstar in Sweden!
It's an inspired political satire in that politics are never discussed. The social and sexual repression of Franco's Spain is seen only in the echoes: in the way the characters live, in the cultural attitudes around them, even in the unspoken assumptions made during a visit to a fertility clinic.
It's also an inspired first feature for writer/director Pablo Berger, who was born and raised in Franco's Spain and trained at film school at NYU. The film has been an audience favorite at film festivals all over the world, as much for the gentle satire as the loving portrait of the hot-to-trot couple who use the films as an excuse to let loose of their inhibitions; sex between a happily married couple has rarely looked like so much innocent, joyful fun on screen.
I caught the film on a lark at the 2004 Seattle International Film Festival and was completely taken with its affectionate treatment of character, its gentle satire, and its evocation of a time so rarely treated with such humor, so I introduced myself to Berger and the next day we sat down to a lively interview.
Tell me a little bit about the historical background of 1973 Spain, when the film is set.
I think when you make your first film, you want to go to your roots. I was ten (in 1973) and I wanted to tell a story that captured a little bit of the spirit. I wanted to kind of "vacuum" 1973 and put it in a film. And Spain, at that time, was so different from the rest of the modern countries. There was a sexual revolution going on in America, in France, in Germany, in England. There were movies like Last Tango in Paris, Deep Throat, The Devil In Miss Jones. 1973 is the key year of pornography. And in Spain we had Franco ruling the country and there were censors and there was not any kind of nudity in any kind of media form, film or print. So I like that idea of that contrast.
In this case, [we have] a Spanish/Danish co-production and Denmark was the first country to legalize pornography. It was something that appealed to both worlds. The Scandinavians were very interested in co-producing this film with us and we were delighted to co-produce this film with the Scandinavians. Nimbus Film is a very important Danish production company. They're responsible for the Dogme movement and they produced Celebration and Mifune.
Mads Mikkelsen, who plays the Swedish actor, was in some of those Dogme films.
Yes, he was Open Hearts. He's a big star in Denmark and he's a lovely actor. He works so hard in this film because he kind of transformed. Up until recently, he only was playing this tough guy, a street-wise character, but in Open Hearts he got more sensitive and in Torremolinos he played this really good-hearted porn star, you know? And he changed his hair and he put in some contact lenses and he didn't mind appearing nude. He didn't have any problem playing a porn actor.
Let's go back to the historical backdrop. You're in Franco's Spain and you also have a really strong Catholic culture. Carmen is always kissing her cross.
It's actually the Virgin Mary and the baby. It's more subtext.
I find it very funny that we have this good Catholic girl who really gets into her part in these little sex films that her husband, Alfredo, is shooting with her.
The thing is that Alfredo and Carmen, the main characters, are just an ordinary couple. They love each other very much, they have great sex and they enjoy sex in their private lives. So I think that's why their amateur porn loops are so successful, because they have real sex and they enjoy it. They're not acting, they're not porn actors, so they have it right. I think they even get very motivated with all those nurse outfits and all their little stories that they make up.
In the very first film, when she's playing the bride in a wedding gown, he's behind the camera and he can't wait to get in front of it.
That was a very fun scene to edit. The editors really did a great job with the parallel action. She's getting undressed and he's getting undressed at the same.
The Swedish swingers that come in to do the teaching - they just look like they came out of some 1970s movie. They're perfect!
I was very pleased when I read in the [Seattle Film Festival] catalogue today what they wrote about Torremolinos '73. They wrote that it was a rendition of an epoch, like a period Merchant-Ivory movie from the 70s. And actually, that's what I told the crew, that was my objective. I wanted to make a period film like the English, as a reference. So we said, let's make it very carefully. For example, all the outfits that the Scandinavian characters wear, we went to Denmark and we worked with a costume designer in Denmark. We really wanted to use Danish clothes, shoes, pants, jacket, and Danish actors to play the characters. The producers, they said, "It doesn't matter, just use Spanish actors." No, I thought the clothing was important, so all those things are real.
And the color of the film itself doesn't look like a modern movie.
I always like that, when people comment about the look of the film, because it was very tough to achieve that look. First of all, because producers and distributors wanted to make the film in giddy colors, extreme colors, very colorful, fun, it's a comedy. But myself and the director of photography wanted to go in the opposite direction. We wanted to go for de-saturated color. We wanted to make it a little sad, not to have the happy 70s; a little more, like, sad 70s.
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