Basically consisting of four nighttime two-handers set in dingy Barcelona apartments, each dealing with solitude, defeat and ways of escape, the script is brilliantly brought to life by a gathering of fine thesps.

“Big issues in small rooms” could be an alternate title for “Barcelona: A Map,” a typically thought-provoking item from one-a-year Catalan helmer Ventura Pons. Basically consisting of four nighttime two-handers set in dingy Barcelona apartments, each dealing with solitude, defeat and ways of escape, the script is brilliantly brought to life by a gathering of fine thesps. The result remains firmly theatrical, despite helmer’s best efforts, but its deftness of touch and sheer humanity make it surprisingly accessible fare. Pons aficionados will lap it up, but “Map” looks unlikely to chart any new territories.

Timid, elderly Ramon (Josep Maria Pou) once worked at a Barcelona theater, later burned down, where he enjoyed dressing up in women’s costumes. He’s now married to Ros (Nuria Espert) and owns a house whose rooms he has rented out.Wishing to spend his last days in peace, Ramon visits his tenants to ask them to leave. He calls first on Lola (Rosa Maria Sarda), a French teacher whose son (German Parreno) is an architect partly responsible for the changing face of the city.

Second conversation has Rosa dealing with the fragile machismo of David (Pablo Derqui), an embittered security guard and failed soccer player who’s been abandoned by his wife. “People,” David believes, “only respect what they fear.”

Pic’s best, subtlest quality is the way the characters briefly become other people to those they are talking to. Rosa figuratively becomes David’s mother, while, in the third section (the only one in Spanish), attractive young Argentinean cook Violeta (Maria Botto, wonderful) is shown to have been Ramon’s lover. It’s an unlikely pairing that, the script ensures, feels not the least bit implausible.

Fourth section has Rosa’s gay brother Santi (Jordi Bosch) visiting her and trying to get hold of a diary that contains a revelation about their past — one that strikes the pic’s first and only false note.

The beautifully nuanced and paced conversations meander through incest, fraud and conflagration. As the powerful stories behind these apparently minor lives emerge, they all turn artfully on the basic theme of isolation and how to deal with it. Dialogue occasionally lapses into the pretentious, but more often its profundities seem rooted in the characters’ urgent need to get at the truth about one another.

The lively Botto stamps her card as one of Spanish cinema’s finest young character actors. Vet Espert, now rarely seen on the bigscreen, imbues Rosa with a gentle authority, the perfect foil to her husband’s muttering insecurities. Pou, who facially resembles an overweight basset hound, is gripping as a physically huge but morally shrunken man who ends up, in a remarkably daring final twist, having very special powers.

Visually, pic is all cramped, gloomy, brown-hued interiors. Score often uses plaintive guitar and piano to lightly underscore the mood.

Barcelona: A Map

Spain

Production

A Filmax release of an Els Films De La Rambla production, with participation of TVE, TVC. (International sales: Els Films De La Rambla, Barcelona.) Produced, directed, written by Ventura Pons, based on a play by Lluisa Cunille.

Crew

Camera (color), Mario Montero; editor, Pere Abadal; music, Carles Cases; art director, Bel-Lo Torras; sound (Dolby Digital), Natxo Ortuzar. Reviewed at Cine Renoir Plaza Espana, Madrid, Oct. 22, 2007. (In Rome Film Festival -- competing; Toronto Film Festival -- Contemporary World Cinema.) Running time: 90 MIN.

With

Josep Maria Pou, Rosa Maria Sarda, Jordi Bosch, Maria Botto, Pablo Derqui, German Parreno, Nuria Espert. (Catalan, Spanish dialogue)

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