Exploitation along class and ethnic lines is played for laughs in Ruben Alves’ debut feature, “The Gilded Cage,” with just enough solidarity beneath the humor to give this feel-good pic a certain piquancy. Alves explores the intriguing question of what constitutes home for a family of Portuguese immigrant workers who have long acclimated to French culture, while also delivering a salutary kick in the pants to the uptight haute bourgeoisie a la Philippe Le Guay’s “The Women on the 6th Floor,” with much of that film’s energetic thesping but little of its cinematic elan. A box office bonanza in France and Portugal, this bubbling crowdpleaser could score globally.
Their innate kindness, fierce dedication to their work and inability to say no have allowed a Portuguese couple to smoothly run a swanky Parisian apartment building for many years. Quiet, indomitable Maria Ribeiro (Rita Blanco, a mainstay of numerous Portuguese films and TV series) serves as concierge, picking up laundry, babysitting, gardening and performing a host of little services that go far beyond her job description. Salt-of-the-earth hubby Jose (Joaquim de Almeida, a veteran of more than a hundred Hollywood films), when not working as a construction foreman, performs numerous tasks as handyman in the posh building, living with wife and kids in the crowded concierge’s loge.
An unexpected windfall requires that the couple go back to Portugal to retire in luxury in the land of their dreams. They keep silent about the inheritance but, unbeknownst to them, word gets out, whereupon all the people who depend on their help hatch separate plots to manipulate them into staying. The building’s owner (Nicole Croisille) hires extra personnel to take over some of Maria’s tasks and promises to enlarge her cramped living quarters. Jose’s boss (Roland Giraud) offers praise and a raise, openly encouraging the romance between his son Charles (Lannick Gautry) and the Ribeiros’ daughter Paula (Barbara Cabrita). Even Maria’s sister Lourdes (Jacqueline Corado) pretends her husband is dying to ensure that sis sticks around to launch (and cook for) their projected Portuguese restaurant.
When the Ribeiros learn of the selfish scheming of their employers, friends and family, they exact suitably theatrical, highly undutiful revenge. But although they pull off their revolt with commendable panache, their hearts really aren’t in it. They have begun to seriously question where they belong, their commitment to their long-held Portuguese dream vying with their unexpectedly deep French roots.
The Ribeiros’ seriously divided loyalties, lent a certain gravitas by the leads’ nuanced thesping, play out in an atmosphere of increasing farce. Alves limns his characters with varying levels of caricature. Corado’s Lourdes and her sidekick Rosa (Maria Vieira), given to melodramatic utterances, overblown gestures and spontaneous dance steps, skirt stereotype, as does Croisille’s supercilious rich bitch. By contrast, in the role of the Ribeiros’ loving daughter Paula, Cabrita positively radiates beauty, brains and compassion.
Alves ultimately unites his large cast in festive unity, with comic reversals redeeming the seemingly irredeemable in farcical fashion, and with large doses of ethnic warming. But though his characters display lively joie de vivre, Alves’ direction remains rather stolid, owing more to populist telenovelas than to any of the more daring Gallic explorations of immigrant experience.