A few years ago at this airport I happened to catch an interview with a famous actor in his late thirties who proudly declared that he no longer listened to popular music. One may suppose that statements like these are made to signal the person’s entry into the world of adult values where the bubblegum sensibilities of youth are replaced by stiff drinks and Chopin études. But this actor, who has never won any accolades for his work, was clearly indicating that his good looks were no longer important: he wanted serious roles about serious life problems. No more action adventures; no more slasher flicks; no more comedy; no more preposterously overplotted thrillers. What remains from the spectrum of opportunities is essentially twofold (let us omit, for now, cartoon voiceovers): period pieces, usually royalty getting the better of other royalty, and the most fundamental category of them all, that of drama itself. Yes, all these famous faces went or should have gone to drama school and learned the fine craft of beseeching, antagonizing, brooding, and door slamming. It was precisely drama that bored me silly as a child and teenager because it necessarily involves problems and relationships I could not possibly have understood at the time. And melodrama, according to its etymology, was originally the combination of theater and music full of violent gesticulation, overacting and general histrionics. Nevertheless, when you leave out melodrama’s highs and lows (as this great critic suggests), you have the essence of our daily interaction, our secrets, our compromises, our tragedies. Not a bad introduction to this recent film.
We find ourselves amidst moneyed Spaniards in Paris, at a family reunion that would seem far more festive were it not for the brief opening scene in which an elderly man is standing on a ledge. A ledge, mind you, that might be entirely in his mind. This man is Maximiliano Martini (the late Fernando Fernán−Gómez), a Spanish industrialist. His French wife of fifty years, Marie (Geraldine Chaplin), senses the end and summons her three sons, Victor (Leonardo Sbaraglia), Luis and Alberto to France to bid farewell to their father. Once the brothers see their father evincing all the typical signs of dementia, they go about their usual business: Victor finally introduces his half−Argentine girlfriend to the family; Luis brings along his children and shrew of an ex−wife, as well as his much younger girlfriend, the children’s nanny; and, as heir apparent to Max’s company, Alberto is too busy negotiating with Dutch clients to notice Victor’s blatant love affair with his wife. Apart from one rather restrained scene, there are no outbreaks of vulgarities, smashed china, or nails dug deep into a younger woman’s unwrinkled skin. The tension mounts and dismounts but never raises its legs in attack.
In fact, one of the film’s main attributes is that it continues to include the small details of the everyday life and struggles of the Martinis without losing sight of the main plotline. And what might that plotline entail? Don Maximiliano has something on his mind, which, apparently, works perfectly fine when the nurses aren’t buzzing about. He choose Victor to confide in because of his three sons, Victor is the dreamer, the most romantic and idealistic. But what he reveals in small hints does not initially lead anywhere. There is, he is most genuinely convinced, a plot afoot against him. Most frequently, he speaks of a friend he cannot name: “I cannot tell you who he is. I cannot tell you where he is. But we must find him.” That riddle or an anagram thereof is all Victor, intrigued in his father’s rantings for the simple reason that any cry for help means his father is still mentally fit, gets from Max for the first third of the film. Then he gets a place (“The Fountain”) and finally a name: Rancel.
It turns out The Fountain was a watering hole for Spanish communists in the 1940s and 1950s. “Did you know your father was a Communist?” asks Victor’s girlfriend, as if the choice between Franco and the radical left were at all palatable. After tangling himself in speculation, Victor confronts his mother, who reluctantly admits that Rancel and Max were friends and colleagues when they were both staunch anti−Francoist spies after the Second World War. They carried messages over the border from France and back for four successful years until, one day, Rancel left on a mission and never returned. Someone, she whispers, must have tipped off the government. And who was most likely to have given in to the simple temptations of money and security than the greedy future industrialist himself? Isn’t our conscience most devastating as we await death’s shroud?
As you might imagine, a twist or two will be provided. Yet these twists are thankfully not the sort to provoke groans of disbelief or mockery; they are sufficiently logical within the context. Marie dismisses the whole enterprise by showing Victor a letter where Rancel’s fate is documented. But then Victor happens to find a book entitled “The City without limits,” and is struck by a few coincidences, including the fact that his father has mentioned the same cryptic phrase among his many other mysteries. So even if you find the second half of the film a bit odd, it is correct and perfectly paced. No acceleration, no overdrive, no explosions. Just some serious problems that require equally serious explanations.