A superb sense of space and a respectful appreciation for incongruity are major selling points for “Paradiso,” Omar A. Razzak’s low-budget docu about Madrid’s last porn cinema. It’s rare enough to find such a leftover in the Internet age, yet even more unusual is the manager at the Sala X Duque de Alba, a guy who decorates the lobby with auteurist posters and buys ties for his regulars at Christmas. Having earned the trust of his subjects, Razzak sets up his observational camera to favor off-center (in many ways) framings, creating a winning if slight crowdpleaser for Hispanophone showcases.
It takes some time to work out what kinds of movies are being shown at the Duque de Alba, since the camera never enters the screening room. From the lobby, decorated with posters for films like “Slumdog Millionaire,” “All About My Mother” and “Man on the Moon,” audiences would expect it to be a regular cinema, maybe even semi-arthouse. Listening to manager Rafael Sanchez chatting with ticketseller Luisa Martinez and some customers about Clint Eastwood, “Battleship Potemkin,” etc., it’s natural to expect the place to be at least a respectable rephouse. But then, unmistakable faked coital moans spill out into the lobby, and lone men surreptitiously exit the cinema heading for the toilets.
For Sanchez and Martinez, who have probably maintained their pleasant collegial banter for decades, nothing about the job or the locale indicates sleaze. Sanchez ensures the small courtyard is kitted out with greenery, and sets up a lobby display tied in with the World Cup. Of course, he’s hardly unaware of what goes on around him: Older men pair off with superannuated hustlers, a common enough occurrence in pre-gay liberation years when straight porn theaters served as clandestine meeting places for men unable to make hookups elsewhere. Yet for Sanchez and Martinez, just as much as for the director, such private assignations are understood but not commented upon, and the clientele are accorded the courtesy due all fellow beings.
“Paradiso” has a built-in mini-drama because Martinez is set to retire, threatening to significantly change Sanchez’s placid work environment. Razzak, who spent three years shooting, doesn’t play up this element, but it does provide a useful narrative arc to an otherwise staid, though involving, docu. While much of the pic’s appeal lies in the quirky characters, some utterly Lynchian in aspect and behavior, viewer appreciation accrues significantly thanks to the helmer’s rigorous formalism.
Every edit consists of a single shot, with Razzak and d.p. Mikel Saenz de Santamaria constructing the frame in ways that emphasize a sense of spatial distance. People are almost always on the sides, and even when Sanchez shops at Monoprix, he seems separated from others. Partly this is because his working hours aren’t exactly 9 to 5, but also this vacuum contributes to a vision of people existing out of time and space, isolated but for chance encounters in a cinema not so far removed from “Goodbye Dragon Inn.” Tech credits are strong despite the micro-budget.