Lugging The Encyclopedia of the Spanish Civil War door-to-door in Madrid's suburbs proves so fruitless that Alfredo Lopez can't even make the rent on small apartment. Never mind that his wife, Carmen, longs to have a baby they can't afford. So when his boss calls him in for a meeting, Alfredo's sure he'll be fired.
The surprising new opportunity he's offered is the focus of Pablo Berger's charming comedy-drama, Torremolinos 73, set in the early 1970s during Franco's regime. The future, says the publisher, is not in the printed word, but in "educational films." If Alfredo and his wife were to film themselves making love, such "instructional footage" would be included in "The Audiovisual Encyclopedia of Human Reproduction," a subscription series of films to be distributed only in Scandinavia, and for which they would be handsomely compensated.
The sweet, unassuming couple, who define the quiet ordinary life, agree to participate; with the money, they could have a baby, thereby achieving society's ultimate normality. But in one of the film's sly twists, each discovers making amateur pornographic films to be personally liberating. Alfredo, who directs, photographs and edits the 8 mm films, as well as "acts," finds himself drawn to the artistry of the medium, particularly the early works of famed Swedish director Ingmar Bergman. (The impressionable, unsophisticated Alfredo appears to conflate all Scandinavian cinema, be it a grainy nudist loop or The Seventh Seal.) Carmen, meanwhile, blossoms sexually, but despite their well-documented efforts, no baby is conceived.
Berger successfully toggles between comedy and melodrama, though this is a task shared with the two lead actors. Javier Cámara, seen recently as the nurse in Pedro Almodóvar's Talk to Her, portrays Alfredo with a wistful gentleness and the tempered zest of a dull man who's found something exciting in life to pursue. Candela Peña's Carmen, rooted in tradition but recently unshackled, suggests the impending new Europe where women will set their own domestic agendas.
Befitting the culturally staid time in which Berger sets his story, he chooses to shoot his film rather flatly, and makes great use of dull interiors. That's not to say the film itself isn't lively. We are privy to a number of Alfredo's badly shot if exuberant educational films, several of which are edited together in a montage accompanied by a bouncy pop song. And when Alfredo tackles his pet project, a Bergmanesque film -- with added porno -- pondering love and death set in the deserted seaside resort of Torremolinos, Berger has great fun mimicking the Swedish director's arty style -- without compromising Alfredo's integrity, nor the affection the pair of everyday pornographers have won from us. In Spanish, with subtitles.