“Death to Ugly People” means to put smiles on faces and tears in eyes, and signs are it will succeed. A crowd-pleasing rural comedy about the frustrated love affair between an aesthetically challenged farmer and his sister-in-law, pic has been carefully tailored to have it all ways; the result is slick, rulebook merchandise, shot through with a touch of soul, courtesy of a trio of strong performances. Helmer Nacho Garcia Velilla’s debut, “Chef’s Special,” did good offshore business, with “Ugly” likely to follow.
Pic opens with 40-ish Eliseo (Javier Camara) — bespectacled and wearing a spectacular comb-over — once again failing on a blind date and returning, depressed, to the farm where he lives with his mother, Nieves (Petra Martinez), and uncle, Auxilio (vet Juan Diego), who encourage him to leave the pueblo to explore the wider world. As Eliseo is about to depart, Nieves is hit by a bus, leaving a bitter Eliseo to take over the farm.
After Eliseo has further humiliated himself by trying to pick up an ex-girlfriend at her husband’s funeral, his sister-in-law, superstitious, vivacious Nati (Carmen Machi, playing to type), unexpectedly turns up, having been left by her ne’er-do-well husband (Pere Arquille), and becomes a further nuisance to Eliseo. Overhearing a drunken Eliseo complaining about his loneliness, Nati takes pity on him, and a hesitant romance gets under way.
The other inhabitants of the pueblo are having issues of their own. Monica (Ingrid Rubio) is a lesbian who wants to be a mother, and on Nati’s advice that she use a friend as a surrogate father, she chooses the wolfish, sexist Ramon (Hugo Silva, planted in the pic for teen auds). And wannabe writer Javier (Lluis Villanueva) is having a hard time bringing up a family with wife Monica’s sister Bego (Maria Pujalte) .
Elsewhere, simpleton Bertin (Julian Lopez) hangs around like a Shakespearean fool, supplying awkward truths. Priest Abel (Tristan Ulloa, not naturally a comic thesp) proves excessive to the film’s dramatic requirements, and the final 20 minutes find the pic in unsatisfying wrap-up mode.
None of the subplots has the interest or charm of the main story, but the script — which crucially sympathizes with its protags even as it laughs at them — does well to keep them all in the mix. There are several perceptive one-liners, but the richest humor is nonverbal, derived from the well-observed perfs by Diego, Machi and Camara (also the lead in “Chef’s Special”), all of them natural comedians who flesh out their characters superbly.
The fresh, contempo air of “Special” is far less in evidence here, as apparent in “Death’s” shopworn comparison between cattle shows and beauty contests. Juanjo Javierre’s score, melodic soft rock rather than the standard strings, does provide a hint of the modern.
The impressive mountain landscapes of Aragon are done full justice by David Omedes’ otherwise workmanlike lensing. Pic offers a nicely romanticized view of life in a Spanish pueblo, with its fiestas, local musicians and bubbling street life.
Striking title is the name of a popular 1965 Spanish song, and indeed the use of ’60s tunes throughout adds to the general air of nostalgia; Velilla has claimed that his work is an attempt to recapture the spirit of ’60s Spanish comedy.