Elsa & Fred

2005, Movie, PG, 106 mins


Sentimental, formulaic, predictable and shamelessly manipulative, Marcos Carnevale’s tale of late-life love is also genuinely heartbreaking and heartening, thanks to effortlessly nuanced performances by veteran actors Manuel Alexandre and China Zorilla.

Reserved, recently widowed Alfredo “Fred” Ponce Cabeza de Vaca (Alexandre) has just moved into a handsome apartment in downtown Madrid, where he catches the eye of live-wire Elsa Oviedo de Riveros (Zorilla). Fred has lived his life for others: His by-the-book wife; his brittle daughter Cuca (Blanca Portillo); her husband, Paco (Jose Angel Egido), who’s always dreaming up pie-in-the-sky business ventures; and their spoiled son, Javier (Omar Munoz). Argentina-born Elsa, on the other hand, has always done exactly as she pleased, often to the dismay of her proper son, Gabriel (Roberto Carnaghi). Widowed for 27 years (or maybe 25; who cares about such trifling details?), Elsa has only one regret: She always dreamed of recreating the Trevi Fountain from LA DOLCE VITA (1960): By all reports she was a bombshell a la Anita Ekberg in her youth, but she never found her Marcello Mastroianni. Could she make over the hypochondriac Fred into the man of her dreams?

Carnevale’s film is irrefutable proof that romantic comedy cliches know no age: Fred is the classic stay-at-home hypochondriac, afraid of life’s endlessly messy complications, while Elsa is the wacky, free-spirited gal who was born to draw him out of his shell. But the fact that Fred and Elsa are in the twilight of their lives adds a poignancy to their formulaic romance, and Zorilla and Alexandre imbue their roles with a lifetime of professional (and, one suspects, personal) experience. The result is hard to resist, especially since Carnevale puts his own spin on the shopworn material: Elsa isn’t just madcap; she’s a reckless liar. There’s more to the starchy Cuca than meets the eye, and less to the feckless Alejo (Gonzalo Urtizberea), whose artistic endeavors Elsa continues to support long after she should have stopped. It’s the details that add texture to the familiar narrative and give Zorillo and Alexandre room to shine. (In Spanish, with English language subtitles) leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh

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