Showing a stylistic bravura and confidence rare among upcoming Spanish helmers, Ramon Salazar’s campy “20 Centimeters” is a self-regarding but vastly entertaining sophomore effort that fuses a wide range of influences — Hollywood musicals, neo-realism and early-Almodovarian kitsch — into a distinctive, giddy whole. Offshore sales have been healthy, but initial B.O. on the June 17 release has been discreet, confirming Spanish auds’ tendency not to recognize homegrown talent when it comes along.
Adolfo (Monica Cervera), who lives his life as Marieta, is trying to raise the cash for the operation that will let him shed the 20-centimeter appendage that’s preventing him from being a woman. The determinedly romantic Marieta lives in a down-at-heel apartment with vertically-challenged Tomas (Miguel O’Dogherty), in a building peopled by women who seem to have stepped out of photos by Diane Arbus.
They include La Candelaria (Pilar Bardem) and Marieta’s buddy Berta (Concha Galan), who’s involved in unspecified shady dealings. Marieta looks after Berta’s son Paulito (Richard Shaw).
Following a hilarious job interview with La Malfolla (Inma Olmos — “Malfolla” translates roughly as “she who needs to get laid”), Marieta takes a job as a railroad station cleaner, one of several moments throughout pic in which Madrid is given a memorable visual makeover. However, she falls asleep on the job and is fired.
She also dozes off in the market while talking to stall owner Rebeca (Lola Duenas), and is rescued by peachy-buttocked shelf-stacker El Reponedor (Pablo Puyol), with whom she embarks on an intense sexual relationship. Unfortunately for Marieta, he’s not put off by her 20 centimeters, and actually likes it; pic’s general air of healthy vulgarity here spills over into soft porn.
Whenever Marieta falls asleep, she dreams she’s in musicals with big, showy set pieces and elaborate choreography. The first of these — a version of Spanish ’60s classic “Tombola” — is unexciting. Others, however, such as “I Only Wanna Be With You,” “I Want to Break Free” or a timely homage to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” are visually witty and well-choreographed.
As the ugly-duckling star of the show, Cervera gives it the old Ginger Rogers try, though her voice isn’t always up to scratch. Still, it’s a testament to her perf — pic was written with her in mind — that the musical sequences feel psychologically plausible. Among other thesps, only the one-dimensional Puyol disappoints.
The tragedy underpinning Marieta’s life and the social circumstances that created it come across only intermittently in the script’s shifting styles and moods. Visuals are always striking, with much telling detail, but pic’s concentration on the extremes of human physicality does start to pall after a while. Film-buff references abound.