Showman-turned-TV prexy Emilio Aragon has made a career out of giving auds what they want, and his helming debut, “Paper Birds,” delivers just that. An accomplished, old-fashioned meller based around a post-Spanish Civil War vaudeville troupe, pic unabashedly tugs at the heartstrings, but its unpretentious air of sincerity and zesty celebration of those who entertain us, while themselves in despair, redeem even its cheesiest moments. First weekend B.O. was strong, with offshore interest likely to follow.
Early scenes show Jorge del Pino (Imanol Arias) and family in Civil War-era Madrid, struggling but happy until a bomb kills Jorge’s wife and child. A year later, now an embittered cynic, he is reunited with his old partner, ventriloquist Enrique Corgo (Lluis Homar), and together they agree to take stage-struck feisty/cutesy orphan Miguel (Roger Princep) under their wing.
The activities of the troupe — whose other members include copla singer Rocio Moliner (Carmen Machi), flamenco singer Merceditas (Ana Cuesta) and die-hard communist Javier (Pedro Ostense) — are scrutinized by smiling Francoist baddie Capt. Montero (Fernando Cayo), who has heard about Jorge’s anti-regime activism and sends Pastor (Oriol Vila) into the troupe as a spy.
Jorge becomes a father figure to Miguel, and when the tween sees news footage of a woman he believes to be his mother, Jorge heads off to investigate. The suspense tightens when Montero hires the troupe to perform for the Generalisimo, and Javier comes up with the idea of assassinating him.
Final scene features the helmer’s father, and takes a completely over-the-top turn into the lachrymose.
Typical of the pic’s play-it-safe instinct, Enrique’s homosexuality is briefly hinted at early on but never mentioned thereafter. The script is far more effective at plucking the heartstrings than ratcheting up tension, but it never strays into the darker areas of politics and suffering, and thus never even remotely evokes the real intensity buried inside its material.
Thesping is fine across the board; Arias has not been so memorable on a movie screen in years, while 11-year-old Princep (“The Orphanage”) acquits himself superbly in a central role.
Pic’s strongest scenes show the troupe rehearsing and performing a clutch of beautifully crafted songs written for the film, but which ooze the feel of the period. Helmer’s score is pretty and lush, but overused.
Gentle, homely comedy comes courtesy of a few deja vu running gags deliver, with Rocio’s hammy musical seductions of the local mayor, pompous nobody Don Ricardo (Jose Angel Egido), providing the biggest chuckles.
Tech aspects are strong, period detail outstanding. David Omedes’ lensing is rarely nuanced but really strong on exteriors, capturing the literally shell-shocked atmosphere of a country ravaged by war.
Local auds are enjoying comparing the film with Fernando Fernan Gomez’s similarly themed classic “Journey to Nowhere,” to the inevitable detriment of the former.