A wonderfully evocative coming-of-age story, “Tramway to Malvarrosa” is based on the semi-fictional memoirs of Spanish writer Manuel Vincent (born 1940), who grew up at the height of Francisco Franco’s power. Gorgeous lensing, soul-stirring music, a bittersweet comic touch and a slightly surrealist bent, however, make this look back far more personal than political. Pic lacks obvious selling points, but deserves a close look by discerning distribs that could help it segue from the fest track into arthouse circulation.
Handsome, fresh-faced Liberto Rabal plays the author, who, as pic starts in 1957, has just returned to his birthplace, a village near Valencia, after a stint in boarding school.
Naturally, family and friends look different to him now, as he retraces earlier steps and tries out some new ones, usually led by the older El Bola (Jorge Rabal), an obese entrepreneur who has everyone convinced he’s a well-connected hotshot.
This ensures special attention at the local brothel, where Mr. Big is determined to make Manuel lose his virginity. Our young hero, however, has fixed on the face of a pretty teen he keeps seeing in odd places, and he decides he must wait for her.
Although Manuel wants to be a writer, his cold, starchy father gives him two choices: “Priest or lawyer!” Consequently, it’s off to Valencia and law school. First day there, he sees his dream girl again and follows her on a trolley car to Malvarrosa Beach, a resort area outside of town.
He doesn’t find her, but runs into a big wedding fete in time to see all the guests kicked out of a restaurant when one of Franco’s generals decides to dine there with a bevy of babes. To his amazement and quiet disgust, they all cheer the jackbooted satyr, even as the bride looks for a place to sit down.
Then it’s on to school, where he’s lectured by a crusty old professor who upholds the regime philosophically, and is befriended by a younger prof who slips him Sartre, Camus and other banned material.
He also meets a beautiful, if decidedly strange, call girl (Ariadna Gil) known as La China. She insists that he’s her cherished b.f. who recently died in a road accident; Manuel resists at first, but the reward for playing along is a first-class lesson in love — even as he keeps searching for the sweetheart to whom he’s never said a word.
The pic is episodic by design, covering key college years of the reticent youngster’s life. Particularly strong is seg in which he returns home again, only to get sucked into a car trip to remote mountain villages where El Bola pulls one of his favorite tricks: Flashing a big cigar and some official-looking papers, he likes to fire a small-town mayor, only to replace him on the spot with some arbitrarily chosen nitwit. The fact that he’s never challenged says volumes about life under fascism.
Manuel has more run-ins with the state. First, he sees a retarded villager tried and executed for raping a local girl; later, he meets a vivacious young Frenchwoman on Malvarrosa Beach. Necking fully clothed, the new lovers are spied — from very far away — by the generalissimo of wedding-party fame. “He can’t just throw us in jail like this, can he?” she asks soon thereafter, from an adjoining cell.
Moments of real despair are rare, however, as the tale assumes a beneficent, valedictory tone similar to Fellini’s “Amarcord.” Veteran helmer Jose Luis Garcia Sanchez (“Cradle Song” was the most recent of about 15 titles) mounts extraordinary set pieces that mix the grotesque (including some weird evangelicals) with the poignant in perfectly measured doses.
There’s a melancholy, ruminative aspect, especially for those aware of the long suppression of Catalonian culture, in the author’s words, delivered via occasional voiceovers.
The actors aren’t asked to delve deep in this pictorial, stylized approach, but the accumulation of detail yields more than enough emotion — even if some viewers will find it all ends a tad abruptly. For English-speaking auds, pic’s subtitles are insufficient, misleading and even distasteful at times. This is one of the very few bumps, however, in the deluxe “Tramway’s” trip to artistic heights.