The early, B&W-tinged moments of Pablo Carbonell’s “Tuna and Chocolate” showing teams of fisherman sweating and tugging at nets full of fish may suggest an update of Visconti’s “La Terra Trema,” but comic Carbonell is up to something far lighter, more insubstantial and willfully eccentric. The popular Spanish funnyman’s directorial debut is a mixed grill of real issues and silly trivia, revolving around a groom’s strained efforts to pull off his idea of the ideal marriage. Prizes at Malaga fest and solid local B.O. will give pic a modest thrust into wider Euro territories.
Seeming to follow in the line of Roberto Benigni’s movies but without the Italian’s overweening urge to clown around, Carbonell plays Manuel, a ruddy mid-aged fisherman on hard times in the burg of Barbate in southern Spain, where the Moroccan coast can be seen on a good day. He and his fellow pals of the sea, Perra (Pedro Reyes) and El Cherif (Antonio Dechent), talk about how low the catch is these days, or how more and more illegal aliens from Morocco — and the drugs they often smuggle in — are slipping into Spain. Still, the vibe is laid back, much like Manuel’s 10-year relationship with Maria (Maria Barranco).
But change is coming, first announced by Manuel’s and Maria’s precocious son, Manolin (Andres Rivera), who declares to his stunned atheist dad that he wants to have Communion and be baptized. Carbonell’s script doesn’t develop situations organically, and Manolin’s news seems to come direct from Mars. No less fathomable is Maria’s instant response, which is that she and Manuel should get married.
There may have been an intent in “Tuna and Chocolate” to gently spoof the slow folks in the hinterlands, or find a more comic spin on the idea of jobless men explored in Spain’s 2003 Oscar entry, “Mondays in the Sun,” but Carbonell dawdles while the film slips away from him.
Manuel lands on a goofy idea to steal a giant tuna for his wedding, and recruits Perra in a scheme that consumes unwarranted screen time. Even if it may be amusing to watch Manuel and Perra play out their nutty plan like a variation on a “Mission: Impossible” plotline, neither the duo of Carbonell and Reyes nor the ridiculously stretched action has many rewards in the end.
Little Manolin’s problems are virtually forgotten among the adults’ goings-on, and Barranco’s Maria gives the pic a nice touch of sanity even though her character’s impulse to marry is murky. Carbonell looks and sounds the irreverent man of the sea, and it’s not hard to wish his low-key perf could have been anchored to a more leak-proof script. Dechent goes overboard as a thuggish idiot who, like everyone else here, suddenly seem to have gone unhinged. Maybe it’s something in the water.
Superior production values — except for the strange, semi-animatronic fish — mark Carbonell, like Benigni and Jerry Lewis before him, as a comic who could turn into a total filmmaker.