Spanish nostalgia wins

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 03 January, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 03 January, 1998, 12:00am

When I heard some rotten Spanish movie had pipped Chen Kaige's brilliant Farewell My Concubine for the Best Foreign Film Oscar back in 1994, I admit I was not impressed. I hadn't seen the movie but I knew it couldn't possibly be as good as Chen's epic story of two Peking-opera stars.

But, having seen Belle Epoque (Pearl, 1.15am), I can now understand why the academy made its decision, although I still think Farewell My Concubine the finer film. Belle Epoque is set in Spain around 1931, when the monarchy had fallen, Generalissimo Francisco Franco and his fascists were still only a threatening cloud on the horizon, and, for the first time in their history, Spaniards were not under the yoke of anything.

The fate of a young army deserter, Fernando (Jorg Sanz), is a mirror of what has happened to the country at large; the guards assigned to march him through the countryside to a court martial fall to quarrelling and shoot one another. He hesitates, but not for long, before heading off to find somewhere to stay for the night.

He is lucky enough to find a good-natured painter named Manolo (Fernando Fernan Gomez), who not only deliberately turns a blind eye to Fernando's tricky position but helps and befriends him. Manolo provides food, shelter and security, and also introduces Fernando to his four stunning daughters.

The rest of the film is taken up with one intrigue after another as each daughter takes one look at Fernando and decides she wants him.

One beautiful scene after another rolls across the screen, there is a splendid fancy-dress parade (part of a local fiesta), for which Fernando dresses as a girl, a great sub-plot surrounds the engagement of the third sister, Rocio (Maribel Verdu), to a wealthy mummy's boy, and there are plenty of sunny gardens, big meals, and very sexy conquests.

It sounds frothy and this is, of course, a romantic comedy but there is also an almost-tangible veil of nostalgia in director Fernando Trueba's way of constructing his story.

Spain in 1931 was at a crossroads and, as things turned out, the road the country took was a very hard one - a bitter civil war followed by 40 years of dictatorship under Franco. It is hard to see a movie about those brief years of freedom and not think how carefree the people seemed then.

Khartoum (World 12.45pm) is a true story set in Sudan in 1885. The British effectively ruled Sudan in those days a local leader, glorying in the title El Mahdi (the Saviour), challenged them. El Mahdi is played with astonishing menace (and quite convincing make-up) by Laurence Olivier. El Mahdi was determined to lead his people on a jihad against the foreign infidel and retake the capital.

He begins by cutting down 8,000 untrained Egyptian troops, and the British Government sends a military man with some experience in handling native rebellion, General C G 'Chinese' Gordon, (Charlton Heston) to negotiate with the Mahdi and get the remaining British-led troops out.

Gordon acquired his nickname after he ordered Peking's Summer Palace burned down in 1860 and four years later finally helped rid the Qing Dynasty of the Taiping pretenders, who had set themselves up as a rival dynasty in Nanking.

Heston plays Gordon as something slightly more than the gung ho British militarist; he is admirable, if not always likeable. There are some huge, extraordinary setpiece battle scenes, and good supporting performances from Richard Johnson as Gordon's loyal sidekick and Ralph Richardson as the Grand Old Man, PM William Gladstone, agonising in London over what to do.