A gentle, bittersweet comedy-drama of female solidarity and subterfuge set in rural Spain.

A gentle, bittersweet comedy-drama of female solidarity and subterfuge set in rural Spain, “Born to Suffer” promises much early on, goes on to become quietly appealing and finally collapses into unlikely melodrama. Centered on an aging woman’s fight for her rights, this femme-populated pic has a likably naive air reminiscent of Spanish rural comedies of the ’60s and ’70s. But while charm is there throughout, the film lacks the all-important bite of the real. “Suffer” will find relief at fests, but there’s also a wider arthouse audience out there for this quintessentially Spanish item, which opened locally Feb. 12.

Helmer’s well-documented sympathy for the outsider finds expression here in 72-year-old Flora (magnificently played by Petra Martinez), wily and foxlike in both appearance and disposition. Flora’s sister has just died, and her three ungrateful nieces, whom she brought up — Mariana (Mariola Fuentes), Mari Carmen (newcomer Mari Franc Torres) and nun Marta (Malena Alterio) — gather like vultures with the idea of sending her to the nursing home where Marta works.

Flora is having none of it and heads off with her faithful housekeeper, Purita (Adriana Ozores), who’s unworldly to the point of simple-mindedness, to change her will. Flora stipulates the nieces can have the house only on condition that Purita stays with her until her death. To guarantee this — and to the horror of all — Flora, in the pic’s boldest stroke, marries Purita.

The film starts to get dramatically wobbly when the two see Purita’s brother, Ciriaco (Ricard Borras), on a reality TV show, hunting for his long-lost sis. Purita’s backstory comes out, and it’s frankly incredible that none of it has emerged before now.

Final scenes of the movie, which could lose 20 minutes overall, see the script returning to telenovela territory.

Easily the best thing about the film is Martinez, whose Flora is a quietly complex creation — part victim, part manipulator, her mind always busy behind her calm exterior. And there’s a genuinely oddball chemistry between her Flora and Ozores’ Purita that at times interestingly threatens to cross over into the romantic.

That aside, Ozores, generally a guarantee of quality, struggles to find much depth or sympathy in Purita, who’s an entirely passive creature. Other characters barely escape stereotype.

Pic deftly raises issues such as the stifling dynamics of family relationships in traditional communities, and marriage and power. As Pedro Almodovar has shown, the lives of women in Spain’s pueblos, where the menfolk are either dead or on the sidelines, is a rich source of material largely neglected by Spanish cinema. Here, the theme’s comic and dramatic potential feels under-exploited.

Lensing, partly done on location, makes the pueblo look pretty to the point of idealizing it, while the surrounding countryside looks harsh. Scenes featuring local fiestas are nicely done, with top work by Jorge Calvo as a campy, silver-jacketed singer. Lucio Godoy’s perky score plays up pic’s comic side.

The film includes a fleeting homage to Argentinean director Fabian Bielinsky, who died in 2006.

Born to Suffer

Spain

Production

An Alta Classics release of a Tornasol Films, Castafiore Films, Nacidas Para Sufrir production, with the participation of TVE. (International sales: Latido, Madrid.) Produced by Gerardo Herrero. Executive producers, Javier Lopez-Bello, Mariela Besuievsky. Directed, written by Miguel Albaladejo.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Kiko de la Rica; editor, Pablo Blanco; music, Lucio Godoy; art director, Federico G. Cambero; sound (Dolby SRD), Eduardo Esquide, Mario Gonzalez. Reviewed at Alta Films screening room, Madrid, Jan. 14, 2009. (Also in Berlin Film Festival -- Panorama.) Running time: 107 MIN.

With

Petra Martinez, Adriana Ozores, Maria Alfonsa Rosso, Malena Alterio, Maria Elena Flores, Marta Fernandez-Muro, Sneha Mistri, Mariola Fuentes, Mari Franc Torres, Jorge Calvo, Ricard Borras.

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