Saturday, December 25, 2010

SCN: Monleón's THE CONSUL OF SODOM: a gay/bi arthouse/mainstream masterpiece

Finally: an unabas-hedly gay/bisexual mainstream/art-house movie that may very well stand the test of time. THE CONSUL OF SODOM is a beautifully filmed, historical romance that puts sex at its center. Since it is also a bio-pic of the Spanish poet Jaime Gil de Biedma, who did much the same thing in his own life, this makes perfect sense and produces a damn-near perfect movie. Here we get his-tory, filtered though the life and times of a gifted poet (shown just below in his heyday) who was also one hell of an interesting guy.

We also get reams and reams of sex, with some of then most gorgeous faces and bodies -- men and women -- to be seen in some time, complete with the occasional hardcore moment, juicy and pertinent, that offers yet more ammuni-tion for those of us who believe that there is no good reason not to show this sort of thing within a movie's sex scenes. We also get literate, smart dialog -- rare in the gay canon -- along with some fine poetry. In fact, the movie made me want to read the work of Gil de Biedma, which I hope is available in translation. Finally we get a knockout performance from the film's leading man, Spanish actor Jordi Mollá -- and a number of wonderful ones from the supporting cast.

The man most responsible for all this is Sigfrid Monleón (shown at left), the film's director and co-writer/adapter, along with Miguel Dalmau (from his own novel), Miguel Ángel Fernández and Joaquín Górriz. I am unfamiliar with Monleón's other films, but on the basis of this one, I'll see anything else he does or has done. He possesses as keen an eye for spectacle as for intimate moments (both are often sexual: those opening scenes in 1940s Manila!), his pacing is terrific (he moves when speed is needed but grows leisurely when we most want to linger), and he draws out superb performances all-round.

Yes, the movie is full of the usual "this happened, and then that happened," which simply comes with the territory of the biopic. But when "this and that" happen so fully and richly (the gorgeous cinematography is by José David Montero, who did the terrific genre film El rey de la montaña a few years back), I have no complaints.

Much of the richness of the film comes from a screenplay encompas-sing not only the life of the poet (who was a very good business-man, in addition to his writing and copious love life) but how this worked into the politics of the time. Gil de Biedma's career spanned the Spanish Civil War, the Franco regime and the heady, post-Franco years, and Monleón's movie gets it all -- and gets it right.

And while the Franco regime did not look kindly upon homosex-uality, coming from a successful and monied family, as the poet did, proved a help. "Franco leaves the rich alone," Jaime insists. "Only up to a point," replies his father, very well-limned by Juli Mira (shown at right). The somewhat fraught father/son relationship is brought to life quite well, as is the writer's place in the left-wing poetry "collective" of the time. The men involved in this appear -- in the film, at least -- to have been able to put aside their sexual differences in order to help each other write and prosper, as shown by Jaime's help to the writer Juan Marsé (played by Alex Brendemühl, below) and by the constant help and support given Jaime by Carlos Barral (a solid Josep Linuesa, shown two photos below). The interplay throughout the film of culture, politics and economics makes the movie all that more engrossing.

As Gil de Biedma was a poet and man dedicated to sexuality and pleasure, it should not be surprising that the various love affairs of our hero take precedence over much else. The view of sexuality shown here is much more sophisticated, fluid and European than most Americans are used to seeing. Even our supposedly liberated GLBT-themed movies tend not to show characters whose sexual preferences can glide so easily from one sex to the other and then back again. Nor is the film afraid to note how economic need influences our sexual options.  It is clear that some of Jaime's male companions prefer women for sex but are perfectly happy to oblige a rich, attractive man when the opportunity arises -- and enjoy it.

Even Jaime finds himself attracted to and finally head-over-heels smitten with the smart and beautiful fashion designer, Bel (played by the alluring, Italian-born singer Bimba Bosé, below, in her first film role) whom the movie posits as the one great love of his life. When Jaime visits, years later, an early conquest from his Philippines' days, he finds the man with wife and family and seems genuinely pleased for his old flame's good fortune.

The Consul of Sodom avoids hagiography, however, by presenting its hero in a rounded manner. Jamie is very quick to anger, and always ready with a witty, nasty quip that often pulls the rug from under his current amour. The movie makes clear how difficult a guy to live with this fellow is. He is also bred from wealth, which shows in his fine taste, as well as occasionally in his unwillingness to accept anything less. There's a smart scene in a restaurant with his final lover Pep (a wonderfully moving performance from Isak Férriz, below) in which he rudely decimates the young man's attempt to learn table manners and wine tasting. Pep later accuses Jaime and his friends of being wealthy and class-conscious -- which of course they are. But they  also make up a decent, caring group that has tried to do its best for culture and citizenry.

In the hands (and face, body and mind) of Señor Mollá (below and at bottom), this fine poet and troubled man comes to fecund life. This actor is always good, but he has rarely been given a role as rich as this one, and there can be no higher praise than to say he does it full justice. Despite Gil de Biedma's many faults, we'd have been lucky to have rubbed shoulders (and any other body parts, including brains) with this guy, who was above all kind, witty, literate, talented, great in bed with either sex (providing, as someone makes clear, that he was "in love" with  the other person). And maybe -- according to Bel -- a bit of a sexist. And Mr.Monleón has gotten it all: the times, the culture, the politics, the poetry (much of Gil de Biedma's work is quoted in voice-over here)-- in short, the life.

Most recently seen for two showings at the FSLC's Spanish Cinema Now, the film was nominated for five Goya Awards last year, including one for Mollá. As of now, it has not been picked up for U.S. distribution, but it would seem an absolute shoo-in for a distributor such as Strand, WolfeTLA (or IFC, at the very least via its VOD program) -- one or all of whom I hope are bidding on it now.  TrustMovies cannot imagine that interested audiences will not flock to this wonderful film -- and, he hopes, soon. The Consul of Sodom is of course too rich, racy, and bisexual for the American mainstream. But the full house at the recent SCN screening seemed to show surprising approval.  Perhaps arthouse/mainstream audiences might just be able to sit back, suck it in, and then breath out a sigh of happy, surprised relief. Gee: sex of all kinds can be liberating and fun. Dangerous, too.

Ah, yes -- and a very Merry Christmas 
and happy holidays to you all!

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