An ambitious, multi-storied attempt at a full-body X-ray of ’50s Madrid, when Spain was in the grip of Francoism, vet helmer Jose Luis Garci’s technically impressive and neatly-crafted “Merry-Go-Round c. 1950” is typical of its auteur’s style of self-consciously fusing Spanish circumstances with classic Hollywood motifs. However, here the scale of the project means the effect is more diffuse, some tales functioning well, others inevitably dying. Garci devotees will adore it, but pic is unlikely to open up any new markets for a helmer who willfully operates far from the Spanish mainstream.
Featuring a speaking cast of around 80, film weaves together its innumerable stories in a novelistic, pick-up-and-drop manner which ensures interest rarely flags over the two-and-a-half hours. However, large number of scenarios also means pic never goes far below the stylized surface.
Eusebio (Garci stalwart Alfredo Landa) is a mechanic who is worried that his daughter, Balbina (Elsa Pataky), is having emotional problems; Balbina, in turn, is struggling to come to terms with the loss of her lover, Don Natalio (Ramon Langa). In other plot threads, Higinio (Fernando Guillen-Cuervo) struggles to find help for his brother, who is on death row, while in a bank managed by Mendez (Santiago Ramos), Sr. Estevez (Enrique Villen) prepares for a competition that will pit his speed with numbers against a new-fangled invention called a calculator.
Meanwhile, Argentineans Hugo (Miguel Angel Sola) and his actress wife are in Spain trying to raise money for a film, with the delightfully camp assistance of agent Samueye (Javivi) .
Many of the stories show characters scrabbling for crumbs of pleasure in the cultural desert of Franco’s Spain. The general air of depression — caused by political circumstances that pic tackles indirectly at best — is well conveyed by both beautiful lensing, employing a vast palette of grays, and lovingly wrought period detail by vet designer Gil Parrondo.
Pic is far stronger when isolated set pieces are used, as the links used between the other stories are strained. The best stand-alone set piece has Don Jose Pedro (Antonio Dechent) fighting a human “bull” to rapturous applause in front of a crowd at a nightclub, a delightfully surreal (and, apparently, historically authentic) scene which sees a tiny footnote of Spanish history successfully revived.
Perfs are generally fine, though Spanish cinema’s current fave young belle, Pataky, looks too glamorous for her role and too modern to belong to the cinematic universe of the ’50s generation. Film wraps with the quote “They may not have been the happiest of times, but they were the times that were most ours” — an opinion that many contempo Spaniards would find politically provocative, if not downright offensive.