It’s easy to believe that Spanish filmmaker Fernando Trueba was serious when he said, “I would like to believe in God in order to thank him for this prize, but I only believe in Billy Wilder … thank you, Mr. Wilder!” upon receiving his Oscar for Belle Epoque (1992). His film brims with both secular humanism and a strong sense of classic Hollywood filmmaking. Indeed, the amazing arrival sequence of fading opera-star Amalia (Mary Carmen Ramírez)—mother of the four girls at the center of the narrative—might be straight out of a 1930s Ernst Lubitsch musical comedy. (And in many ways, Lubitsch is the precursor to Billy Wilder.) At the same time, there’s something of Jean Renoir about Belle Epoque—not to mention a good deal that’s unique to Trueba, who manages to turn what could have been a lowbrow sex farce into something at once funny and sweetly innocent.
The story follows army-deserter Fernando (Jorge Sanz), who, after a truly strange—and bleakly comic—encounter with a couple of policemen, ends up in a small village. There he meets a crusty old man, Manolo (Fernando Fernán Gómez), who, thwarted in his desires to thumb his nose at the status quo, takes him in. A friendship—predicated in large part on agnostic ex-seminary student Fernando’s ability to cook—springs up between the two and then is interrupted by the arrival of Manolo’s four daughters. The old man attempts to prevent Fernando from meeting them, but fails, whereupon Fernando ends up falling in love—at least briefly—with each daughter. Everyone and everything in this beautifully photographed, sun-dappled film is observed with keen sympathy and good humor, resulting in a wholly delightful film of a type rarely seen.