“The passing of time is the only theme,” declares the hard-bitten protag of “Madrid, 1987,” and considering that the film consists almost entirely of a monologue in a grimy bathroom, the time passes remarkably quickly. A perceptive, ultra-wordy stab at catching the zeitgeist at a time of change in Spain, David Trueba’s two-hander nonetheless feels like a working-out of social and personal themes that hasn’t quite achieved the full leap from page to film. Result teems with ideas that will make most sense to Spanish arthouse auds, suggesting that offshore interest beyond fests will be limited.
Per title, the pic is set at a time when Spain was still in the hands of the political class who saw through the transition to democracy following the death of Franco. Chain-smoking, whiskey-drinking lecher Miguel (Jose Sacristan), deeply in love with the sound of his own voice, is an aging political journo who’s agreed to meet university student Angela (Maria Valverde) to offer advice. But it quickly becomes clear what he really wants, and they head for the apartment of Miguel’s artist friend Luis (Ramon Fontsere).
No sooner has the unfailingly pretentious Miguel expressed the wish that he’d like to have “smelled” Velazquez’s painting “Las Meninas” than he’s daubing Angela’s back with blue paint. Disgusted, Angela heads to the bathroom with Miguel in pursuit, and his stated wish to spend two hours alone with her comes unexpectedly true when the door jams shut, trapping them. It is in this absurd situation, naked in the summer heat (at a time that predates cell phones in Spain), that they spend the rest of the film.
The locked-bathroom setting suggests that this is a study of two generations that would never communicate with one another unless absolutely forced to, while giving Trueba the chance, metaphorically as well as physically, to strip them bare. The stage is set for a power struggle that will leave the old man feeling more vulnerable than he’s used to.
At 74, Sacristan delivers one of his finest performances and is singlehandedly responsible for making the pic watchable. The frankly tiresome Miguel is, to use the Spanish phrase, very pleased to have met himself: Reflections on youth, age, life, death and art pour from him almost incessantly, delivered so as to suggest that Miguel is quoting from stuff he’s written, in a mixture of wit — “the photograph on an ID card is there to remind us what idiots we are” — and cliche. Instantly recognizable as a type within Spain, and tragically unaware of his increasing irrelevance, Miguel reps an old-soldier generation that lived through the turbulent post-Franco years and mistakenly feels there’s nothing the younger generation can teach him.
Mostly silent, Valverde is a superb foil, supplying a range of reactions as the torrent of Miguel’s words washes over her, and nicely limning the struggle of a youngster trying to free herself from the authority Miguel believes he has by right, playing up the pic’s metaphor of Spain’s struggle to free itself from the turmoil of its 20th-century past.
The crew uses mostly female talent. Leonor Rodriguez’s camera does what it can to make the cramped conditions of the green-hued bathroom interesting. The only music is an attractive piece from singer-songwriter Irene Temblay over the final scene.