An ambitious, engaging big-budgeter about a Spanish film crew in the middle of Nazi Germany, "The Girl of Your Dreams" is Fernando Trueba's first Spanish-based feature since 1993's Oscar-winning, charm-drenched "Belle Epoque." Though lacking the warmth of the earlier movie, this works like a dream at most levels. A satisfyingly watertight plot, energetic perfs from a high-profile cast (several from "Epoque") and gold-plated craftsmanship and production values combine to unite a range of genres under a comic banner.

An ambitious, engaging big-budgeter about a Spanish film crew in the middle of Nazi Germany, “The Girl of Your Dreams” is Fernando Trueba’s first Spanish-based feature since 1993’s Oscar-winning, charm-drenched “Belle Epoque.” Though lacking the warmth of the earlier movie, this works like a dream at most levels. A satisfyingly watertight plot, energetic perfs from a high-profile cast (several from “Epoque”) and gold-plated craftsmanship and production values combine to unite a range of genres under a comic banner.

Released Nov. 13 in Spain with a record-breaking 200-plus prints, and a major marketing drive, pic looks set to be the domestic B.O. hit of the year. Offshore , however, the plethora of local refs could prove a stumbling block in “Girl” finding homes.

In 1938, a troupe of Spanish actors under director Blas (Antonio Resines) is in Berlin (recreated in Prague) to shoot “The Girl of Your Dreams,” a cheesy Andalucian musical, as part of a reciprocal agreement between Hitler and Franco.

Script nicely characterizes the crew members in the enjoyable first half-hour. They include gutsy, golden-hearted singer Macarena Granada (Penelope Cruz, taking a worthy stab at an Andalucian accent), who is having an on-off relationship with Blas; Fascist leading man Julian Torralba (Jorge Sanz), who’s immediately targeted by a gay Nazi thesp; gay art director Castillo (an uncommonly restrained Santiago Segura), and alcoholic ex-femme fatale Rosa Rosales (Rosa Maria Sarda). There is some nice ironic cross-cultural humor — Spanish-speaking auds will love hearing a copla sung in German.

Nazi propaganda minister Josef Goebbels (Johannes Silberschneider) falls for Macarena and promises everything at his disposal; this includes supplying a cast of Jewish extras (as Nazis don’t look Spanish enough) and buying a mansion for Macarena. Blas’ main commitment is to his film — optimistically, he hopes the crew has left politics behind in Spain — while Macarena, increasingly uneasy about Goebbels’ designs on her, is more worried about her own safety.

She, meanwhile, falls for one of the extras, hunky Russian Jew Leo (Karel Dobry). Realizing that, when the shoot ends, Leo will be sent to a concentration camp, Macarena decides to help him escape. The stage is set for a conclusion which neatly blends traditional farce with the easy-to-swallow moral that saving human lives is more important than making movies.

Pic skillfully traverses a wide range of moods, from large-scale set pieces — the production design lovingly recreates Berlin’s legendary UFA studios — to scenes of low-lit intimacy charting the breakup of the Macarena/Blas relationship. Wisely from a commercial point of view, but less so artistically, the script generally sidesteps confronting any of the troubling themes it raises , preferring to let the strong, basically comic plot unravel. The one exception is the shooting and (offscreen) torture of Torralba by the Nazis, after he has been mistaken for the runaway Leo, which feels uncomfortably out of place.

Trueba also shuns any film-within-film games, apart from one affecting sequence in which Macarena, after playing a death scene badly, hears her father has died and has to play it again. If confirmation is still needed that Cruz is an actress first and a pretty face second, then here it is.

Other perfs are also strong, particularly from the low-key Resines, trying to keep both the crew and his Nazi hosts happy, and from Silberschneider as Goebbels, a complex role which combines fall-guy comedy with menace. Large cast, however, features a couple of thesps too many: The roles of the nympho Lucia (Neus Asensi) and matronly Trini (Loles Leon) consume more screen time than necessary.

The Girl of Your Dreams

(COMEDY -- SPANISH)

Production

A Lola Films Distribucion release (in Spain) of a Cartel/Fernando Trueba/Lola Films production, in association with Antena 3 Television, Via Digital. (International sales: Vine Intl., London.) Produced by Andres Vicente Gomez, Cristina Huete, Eduardo Campoy. Directed by Fernando Trueba. Screenplay, Rafael Azcona, David Trueba.

Crew

Camera (color), Javier Aguirresarobe; editor, Carmen Frias; music, Antoine Duhamel; art director, Gerardo Vera; sound (Dolby Digital), Pierre Gamet. Reviewed at Cine Palafox, Madrid, Nov. 3, 1998. Running time: 121 MIN.

With

Macarena Granada ..... Penelope Cruz Blas ..... Antonio Resines Lucia Gandia ..... Neus Asensi Bonilla ..... Jesus Bonilla Trini ..... Loles Leon Julian Torralba ..... Jorge Sanz Rosa Rosales ..... Rosa Maria Sarda Castillo ..... Santiago Segura Vaclav ..... Miroslav Taborsky Josef Goebbels ..... Johannes Silberschneider Leo ..... Karel Dobry

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