Sunday, December 6, 2015

Sunday Corner with Lee Liberman: Spanish telenovela, THE TIME IN-BETWEEN proves a soapy, entertaining, historical romance

Having liked the relentless Spanish caper, Gran Hotel, I figured there might be something to THE TIME IN-BETWEEN (El tiempo entre costuras), released in 2013 to huge Spanish viewership, now distributed in many languages and streaming on Netflix. Dubbed a Spanish Downton Abbey, the series, based on a recent novel by Maria Dueñas, spans the young adulthood of seamstress, Sira Quiroga (Adriana Ugarte, shown left), whose quixotic rags-to-riches maturity takes place during the Spanish Civil War and the run-up to WWII.

Melodrama is the link between Gran Hotel and The Time In-Between; the former is a fast-paced satire of the genre, while the latter is an unapologe-tic tear-jerker -- much more old-time melodrama in which Little Red Riding Hood escapes the wolf by the skin of her teeth than spy-thriller romance. (From the sample I read online, the novel is better.) The swooning score, tear-stained cheeks, giddy girl-crushing, and other emotional manipulation almost buries the thing. But shame on me -- I got hooked anyway. If nothing else, the series offers immersion into the domestic life and political atmosphere of a period we may know only through Hemingway's war writing and Pablo Picasso's famous war painting Guernica. The landscapes and architecture of Madrid, Lisbon, and nearby Moroccan cities of Tangiers and Tetouan are seductive, especially the rhythmic calls to prayer and throbbing markets. I was surprised at the proximity and intertwining of the cultures of these Iberian cities (see map above).

Sira, our heroine, grew up poor in Madrid and is pregnant in Muslim Morocco (then a protectorate of Spain with a Spanish population and infrastructure), when Ramiro, her handsome boyfriend (Rubén Cortada, pictured below) dumps her. She passes out on a bus and finds herself in a hospital in the city of Tetouan, the Moroccan capital of the Spanish protectorate. The police commissioner installs her in a hostel with orders to work and pay off the hotel bill in Tangiers that Ramiro left behind. An oddly acquired cash windfall enables her to start her own dressmaking business that flourishes due to the patronage of the German wives whose husbands serve the German embassy.

Meanwhile the Spanish Civil War has sealed off Madrid, and Sira, now self- supporting, is unable to go home where war rages nor bring her mother to safety in Morocco. War is out of sight, but politics is asserting itself in the anti-English, jingoistic chatter of her German clients whose husbands are tasked with influencing leader Francisco Franco to join the German side as WWII approaches.

Sira's confidante, Rosalinda Fox, is the lover of Juan Luis Beigbeder, a Spanish high official stationed in Tetouan (a real-life couple, here played by Hannah New and Tristán Ulloa, above). Beigbeder was deeply opposed to Hitler and eventually failed to persuade Franco not to join the Axis countries. His relationship with Rosalinda, an English woman, was used to remove him from power once Franco joined the Axis (no doubt in exchange for German aid in winning his civil war). But in the meantime Sira has been recruited to spy for the English, whose interest, like her own, lies in keeping Spain out of the coming war.

Sira's infiltration of the German social scene leads to her entanglement with sexy beast, Manual Da Silva, a Portuguese entrepreneur (the excellent Filipe Duarte, above), who is close to inking a business deal with the Germans that will enable them to corner the tungsten market (the mineral required for munitions manufacture). And on we go with cloak and dagger involvement in the German build up to war mixed with sewing ball gowns for clients and gossiping to probe for information. We are treated to a host of plot contrivances and elegant fashions of the late 30's worn to perfection by our beautiful heroine.
The time in-between' may refer to the period between the two world wars but is definitely Sira's method of communicating with her English spy-master, Alan Hillgarth (also a historical figure, here played by Ben Temple) -- she uses Morse code marked as stitches on paper dress patterns ('costuras' = 'seams'). An attractive English journalist, Marcus Logan (Peter Vives) becomes Sira's love interest, mostly from afar, as she will blow her cover with her German clients if she is seen with an Englishman. Above, the pair are on the run from Da Silva's hit men. (Vives, whose biography reports he is a classical pianist, may have graced us with a melodious sample of Schubert from the stage of a concert hall at which our characters assemble in Episode 12.)

Once launched into Sira's world of espionage and couture, I gave into Adriana Ugarte's warmth and magnetism, despite tsk-tsk-ing all the way through at sappy melodramatics that drown real moments of sentiment. Some ruthless editing and direction could have cut the silliness from this romance of politics, adventure, and beauty in a time and place we know so little. The Spanish have plenty appetite for melodrama -- the series that have made it to Netflix, including Velvet and Gran Hotel, wallow in it.

The above post is written by our correspondent, 
Brooklyn-based Lee Liberman, who  
checks in monthly on a Sunday.

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