An unexpectedly appetizing, deceptively slight slice of Barcelona barrio life, “Tapas” has wowed local critics and has done solid Spanish B.O. since its mid-May release. The recipient of several Malaga fest awards, Jose Corbacho and Juan Cruz’s deft, unpretentious debut is low-key, character-based fare whose multiple virtues are grounded in its faithfulness to emotional truth. Featuring three loosely-interwoven stories, a range of universal characters and a script that, though well-turned, lacks real bite and is occasionally implausible, pic still combines enough flair and charm to have the offshore arthouse licking its lips.
The first story deals with rotund, blustering bar owner Lolo (Angel de Andres Lopez), who is abandoned by his miserable spouse Rosalia (Amparo Moreno) even before the credits have finished rolling because of his sexism. Suddenly needing a cook, Lolo, in a somewhat unlikely move, hires Chinese immigrant Mao (Alberto Jo Lee, stereotypically kung-fuing it for all he’s worth) and suddenly finds the bar getting a reputation for good food.
In their own ways, both Lolo (who keeps up the pretence that his wife has not left him) and Mao are equally isolated figures. Lopez deftly straddles the gap between appalling and appealing, showing Lolo in the grip of emotional forces beyond his control.
Meanwhile, middle-aged storeowner Raquel (Elvira Minguez), also separated and equally isolated, is involved with an Internet relationship when teen supermarket worker Cesar (Ruben Ochandiano) turns up at her house to fix her video.
The third yarn is tender and merely sentimental by turns. Elderly Mariano (Alberto de Mendoza) learns that he’s about to die and asks his wife Conchi (the dependable Maria Galiana) to kill him. Conchi, implausibly, makes a living by selling speed to local kids in Lolo’s bar, one of several plot points in which the script hints at the wider social ills that underpin these characters’ lives. Unhurried pacing allows all stories to achieve full emotional closure.
There are no major Spanish names in the cast, but thesping, particularly from Minguez in a challenging role, is convincing across the board. Fluid editing keeps the stories happily afloat across registers ranging from gentle comedy to melodrama, while neatly teasing out hidden parallels between them.
Lensing is unobtrusive, only using hand-held at appropriately high-energy moments, while Pablo Sala’s score is similarly discreet. “Tapas” also means “lids” in Spanish, a pun on the way that characters keep their emotions tightly screwed down. Top-flight Spanish chef Ferran Adria puts in a cameo perf.