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Rosa and Ramon are an old couple. They own an old building. They rent
rooms. The renters are single persons.
The film is simply structured as five lengthy dialogues over the course of an evening. The first three are between either Rosa or Ramon and one of the renters. The fourth is between Rosa and a relative that does not live in the building. The fifth is an epilogue where Rosa and Ramon engage in revelations that answer some of the questions raised by the previous dialogues.
It does not take long to find out that the couple is evicting all the renters. But why?
One of the renters is a middle-aged woman that gives private French language lessons in her apartment. The first dialogue is between her and Ramon. The subject is eviction but as is typical of unhurried dialogues, topics drift into others with facility. Even a bit of opera, La Boheme, comes into play via a radio program.
Rosa is the one to inform a second renter, a man who works as a night security guard in a shopping mall, that he is to leave the premises by Monday (as all the others, by the way). Similarly to the previous dialogue, this one also meanders meaningfully. In the same way that La Boheme was a crucial tidbit in the first dialogue, now it's a gun.
The third renter is an Argentinean woman who works in a restaurant. If the pattern is not apparent by now, it should be when you see Ramon giving the woman the bad news of eviction. Yet this gender hetero-matching is about to be subverted in this and especially the following dialogues.
The fourth dialogue is more enigmatic. A man is called to have a dialogue with Rosa. I won't say anything, except that you should trust your first impression.
The fifth and final dialogue is between Rosa and Ramon. We are coming to the end of the opera (on the radio). It's time for some answers, even some magical dramatics and costumes. The neat gender equation of the first two, not quite three, dialogues is upturned. Some truths are averred, others are hinted. Curtains. Bravo!
The delight in watching this film comes from enjoying the dialogues, observing how topical transitions occur, picking cues out of small talk and appreciating fine actors deliver their lines. The mystery elements are icing on the cake.
The reason for the title is twofold. First, it takes place in Barcelona. Second, the dialogues are complemented by grainy images of locations in that city, such as the famous Sagrada Familia, when they are mentioned. It is a technique that is also used a few times throughout to give image to what's being said in the dialogues. It helps in breaking up the otherwise uniform visual texture of the brownish interior scenes of the building's rooms that are the only venues for the dialogues.
My single, major complaint is poor lipsynch. Evidently the voices were recorded in a studio. The audio is therefore excellent. But seeing lips move not in harmony with what is being said is profoundly annoying.
"People only really talk when they're about to die, and it's not
usually very interesting," says Lola (Rosa Maria Sarda), an elegant
French teacher and one of the tenants Ramon (Josep Maria Pou) asks to
leave the rooms he's rented out to them for years. Lola expresses the
assumption of this film, which focuses on Ramon and his wife as they
review their lives and talk to the departing tenants. Ramon, who looks
like Tom Wilkinson on a bad day, has cancer and hasn't long to live.
The couple think they want to be alone for his last days. And yes,
eventually they do really talk, and some of it isn't very interesting;
but some is.
Pons has produced a provocative, well-acted little study, but it could as well be a play (it is adapted from one) and might have benefited from some more opening up. And this is true despite sepia illustrative clips that constantly interrupt the conversations. The director ought to have used these with more restraint. If somebody says "we once did such-and-such," she feels compelled to introduce a clip showing such-and-such being done--every time. Rather than liven things up, these sometimes frenetic and unnecessary two-second interruptions very often do little but emphasize the slowness of the main proceedings, and the drumbeats and loud clicks that introduce and conclude them become grating as time goes on. Unlike Bergman's ''Saraband, to which this has been compared, there is not much suspense in Barcelona (a Map) about what is going to happen. Conversations between landlords and tenants may not be the easiest way of delving deep into lives to begin with, and at first most of what emerges about Ramon and his wife Rose (Nuria Espert) indeed seem to be things they haven't, rather than have, done. This is true even when they talk to each other, and also when Rosa talks to her gay brother Santi (Jordi Bosch), about whom we learn only that he's a surgeon who cruises the baths.
However, Rosa and her little failed footballer and security guard David (Pablo Derqui), the second tenant conversation, do get kind of personal. Abandoned by his wife, David wants Rosa to be his mother. And he's naked when first seen and nearly naked during the interview. Pons seems to like showing naked men. And before the film is over, gender lines have been crossed and broken taboos have been revealed.
Ramon's smiles show he likes talking to the pregnant restaurant cook Violeta (Maria Botto, an actress from Argentina), who speaks Spanish (the rest is in Catalan). This is the third tenant conversation; and it turns out they actually have a surprisingly intimate relationship; this dialogue is even more personal, to the point of straining credulity. But nonetheless Violeta is the most alive person and the screen lights up with her presence and her beauty.
Of course the old couple have secrets--parenthood even he wasn't aware of in the case of Ramon, and a diary Rosa wants to reveal to Santi containing a revelation from their past. The final, most dramatic revelation, a gratuitous shocker, strains credulity even further and seems more like a desperate last-minute grasping for drama than anything that follows logically and organically from the material. (It's the kind of bombshell that works better on stage than on screen.) On top of that, as a denouement Ramon reveals to Rosa for the first time that he's a kind of male witch. With these attention-grabbers, what might have become a subtle study of old age is undercut by grotesque plot-line twists.
Pons is no amateur and the production though low keyed is stylish; the interiors are atmospheric; the cast is admirable. Nonetheless, the result is only for the patient and the credulous. The hothouse atmosphere gives you the feeling you get sitting indoors all day when it's nice outside.
Finally, in light of the overall theatricality, the basic premise begins to feel a bit dubious. It provides a pretext for long chats. But why should Ramon and Rosa be turning out these lodgers? How are they a bother? Isn't the rent needed? We learn in fact that when Ramon dies, Rosa will be forced to resort to trickery to collect her late husband's whole pension. Perhaps Ramon and Rosa should be talking to a geriatric counselor rather than trading last-minute revelations with each other and with departing lodgers.
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