Sensitive and warmhearted to the verge of insipid, the soft-centered “A Bit of Chocolate” mostly depends on its central perf, with vet Hector Alterio delivering a wonderful portrait of an aging mountaineer as he plays out his last days in a Basque port town. Suffused with an attractively nostalgic air, the pic’s optimism about human nature is refreshing and its final scene undeniably moving, but there’s no avoiding the fact that away from Alterio, things are dramatically half-baked. Aitzol Aramaio explores dramatic terrain that most Spanish debutantes wouldn’t dream of treading, and for that reason alone, “Chocolate” deserves fest sampling.
Pic is based on a bestselling novel by Unai Elorriaga. Lucas (Alterio) returns home from the hospital with his sister Maria (Julieta Serrano), the doctor having ominously told her that Lucas’s body is fine, but his mind’s not in good shape. Busker Marcos (Daniel Bruhl from “Goodbye Lenin!), has recently arrived in town and plays his accordion in the street, attracting the attention of vacationing nurse and painter Roma (Barbara Goenaga), who starts leaving paintings for him to find by way of a sloo-oow seduction. Having nowhere to stay, Marcos lets himself into Lucas’ flat and goes to sleep there — which, given Lucas’ reaction, seems to be a perfectly normal thing in this part of the world.
Realistically engaging and irritating by turns, Lucas becomes increasingly eccentric. His mind is peopled with the dead, and lengthy sequences show us his memories — of waiting for a tram with his girlfriend Rosa (Marian Aguilera), of building a boat with his old friend Matias (Gorka Otxoa). Past-present transitions feel unforced. In these scenes, interestingly, Lucas is still played by Alterio, a device which suggests just how real to the present-day character these distant memories are.
Lucas is not a man meant to elicit sympathy only –and many of the images don’t work that well in showing us this –but his continual upbeat nature is ultimately engaging, and there are some moments of delicious, well-observed comedy. Alterio’s perf teems with nuance, to the extent that, by the final reel, we feel we have truly come to know Lucas: the fine character work pays off in a sweetly sentimental final scene. Alterio’s dominance leaves the other thesps struggling with perfs that are basically reactive. Both younger characters feel like ideas waiting to be fleshed out: We want more about why Roma is so shy, or the reasons for Marcos leaving home. The latter is an oddly passive creature, and Bruhl looks as lost in the pic as his character is in life.
Bingen Mendizabal’s score is as deft and light of touch as everything else about pic, with the same tendency toward the merely airy.