An engaging, feminist magical-realist fable about how goodness is a hard concept to pin down, Laura Mana’s helming debut, “Sex Out of Compassion,” which took best film honors at Spain’s Malaga fest, is a surprisingly accomplished and unusual piece of moviemaking that blends the traditional and the offbeat into a memorable mixture. Reminiscent of Luis Bunuel in his Mexican period, with a bit of “Breaking the Waves” thrown in, “Sex” is artistically praiseworthy, with an attractively feel-good message and the power to haunt. But mainstream appeal is slim and, though at home the buzz is good, offshore fest runs and sales to safe Spanish and Lat-Am territories look its likeliest fate.
Setting is a nameless Mexican pueblo, but there is no attempt to naturalize accents of the mostly Spanish and Mexican thesps. Pic opens in B&W with Manolo (vet Jose Sancho) walking out on heartbroken wife Dolores (French thesp Elisabeth Margoni, dubbed into Spanish in pic’s only amateurish feature) for the odd reason that she is too good.
Other key inhabitants of the pueblo are briefly sketched: aging, bedridden Leocadia (Leticia Huijada); outspoken baker’s wife Berta (Pilar Bardem, in the film’s strongest perf); bar owner Floren (Mariola Fuentes) and the timid object of her desire, street-sweeper Pepe (Alex Angulo); and a depressed priest (Juan Carlos Colombo), to whom Dolores pours out her troubled heart.
A passerby visits Floren’s bar, unhappy at having been deceived by his wife, and Dolores decides to sleep with him. If she has lost her husband for being too good, she reasons, then maybe she can win him back by sinning. A trend is established, with Dolores (who renames herself “Lolita”) becoming a sexual and spiritual refuge for the unhappy men of the pueblo.
Strange things begin to happen: Leocadia recovers the use of her legs, Pepe and Floren start to talk, the men start to give money to the church in return for their new-found happiness. Dolores’ goodness impregnates the very air, and the pic switches to color. Then a truckload of hookers arrive from a nearby town, complaining that Dolores has stolen their business.
The pic is strong on mood, with lensing not afraid to go straight for the (appropriately) surreal. Tonally, there are smooth transitions from comedy to the lyrical, as when Floren and Pepe dance around the bar in silence. Several well-aimed swipes at typical Latino machista attitudes show that pic has a contempo heart.
Scenes of village celebration, in long shot, are beautifully rendered, and the guitar-based score provides sweetly appropriate accompaniment. Only quibble structurally is that writer-director Mana’s fertility of invention throws up too many plot strands, not all of which are rounded out before the end.