In tough times, Spaniards turn to family, which is just what thesp-turned-helmer Paco Leon has done with his distinctive, enjoyable debut, “Carmina or Blow Up.” Star of the show is Leon’s larger-than-life mother, Carmina Barrios, around whom he’s built a quirky contraption that’s part character study, part faux docu, part homage to the Andalucian picaresque tradition and part lively love letter to Mom. Pic depends entirely on whether the public feels affection for its exuberant, motormouthed protag, which Spanish auds have done, suggesting that fests, too, might fall for “Carmina.”
A 58-year-old bar owner, Carmina (Barrios) sits in her Seville kitchen, chain-smoking and musing on life while feeding the goat that lives with her. Her daughter, spirited single mom Maria (Barrios’ real-life daughter, Maria Leon, who was lauded for her perf in Benito Zambrano’s “The Sleeping Voice”), likewise introduces herself to the camera, as does Carmina’s ne’er-do-well, heavy-drinking husband, Antonio (Paco Casaus, a family friend).
The slim plotline, which takes a backseat to character observation, recounts the story of Carmina’s attempts to make up for the money lost after 80 hams were stolen from her bar. Flashbacks recap brief, telling events in Carmina’s life, showing her defiance and cunning at sidestepping misfortune. When a debt collector comes, she hits herself over the head with a bottle and accuses him of attacking her. She’s taken to the hospital after accidentally drinking a douche solution. According to the helmer, some of these things actually took place, but he’s coy about which ones.
Although Barrios won the actress award at the Malaga fest, Carmina is mostly just being herself. She’s the kind of resilient, good-hearted and unintentionally hilarious femme character whom Pedro Almodovar has made a career out of celebrating. Raunchy, continually complaining about her ailments, hypercritical of others but still defensive of her worthless hubby, she delivers a string of pearls of Andalucian wit and wisdom: “I’m not fat,” she says. “I’m the very opposite of anorexic.”
Pic is strongest during her direct-address monologues. Casaus’ almost incoherent speech, which includes the lovely line “Life is so lovely, it almost seems real,” introduces a note of tenderness, while a first communion celebration, featuring a potent flamenco cante from Maria, shows that it’s not all about the grim struggle for survival; pic is thankfully low on direct social commentary.
For the record, this low-budget item is the first Spanish film to be released simultaneously in theaters, DVD, on pay TV and online, with positive first-weekend results that suggest a new distribution model for the Spanish industry. The untranslatable Spanish title is a pun on Vicente Aranda’s 1987 movie “El Lute: Camina o revienta.”