During the latter years of the 1939-75 Franco régime -- when rumor had it that the minuscule Generalissimo was a superannuated vegetable and the state actually run by his wife Carmen Polo and select advisers -- Spain was producing some fine, serious films. Expatriate Buńuel had even returned briefly from exile, twice, to direct Viridiana (1961) and Tristana (1970).
As the country turned to democracy -- officially, a limited constitutional monarchy -- through the "transition," a long thirteen-year (and at the end scandal ridden) socialist government, the failed and still controversial F-23 military coup, economic boom then steep slump, separatist terrorism, a World Cup, an Olympics and, like most of Europe, a more recent rush to the right, a newer generation of filmmakers has sought to mirror the dilemma of modernism in an old, austere, conservative and religious society.
Faced with post-Spanish Civil War skepticism -- and guilt -- about their homeland and shackled with inadequate budgets and poor-to-nonexistent distribution abroad, domestic films were famously unable to penetrate foreign markets. Only a very few national actors reached international audiences, and that always in limited rôles: Fernando Rey of course, maybe Fernando Fernán Gómez or the free-spirited, Paris-based Victoria Abril; Antonio Banderas is only a brief shooting star (aptly, estrella fugaz, "fleeting star," in his language), and Penelope Cruz will not fly or shine by her own light.
Despite Academy Awards in 1982 to Garci's To Begin Again and a decade later Trueba's Belle Epoque, the only Spanish director to achieve name recognition abroad, and that greatly aided by his companion-muse Geraldine Chaplin's magic surname, was the slightly older Carlos Saura, and when he finally saw unlimited backing, he was at an artistic loss, didn't know what to do with it and went to Costa Rica to film and flounder with El Dorado (1987).
Until . . .
Enter Pedro Almodóvar, flamboyant, Tinseltown-minded, brilliant in a way and already something of a minor celebrity before the wild success of the 1988 Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. There has followed a decade and more of Almodóvar as Spanish cinema incarnate abroad. Often reverting to his stable of ensemble actors -- including the wonderful Carmen Maura and, at one time or another, a younger Abril and a young, pre-Melanie Griffith Banderas -- Almodóvar has marketed himself, and his oeuvre, as no other Spaniard ever has in the field (Dalí and Picasso did in theirs) and, in turn, been embraced here as one of us, as "Pedro" to the faithful U.S. in-groupies.
No matter that his vision of Spain is grossly exaggerated -- the country is humdrum three-button like anywhere else, nowhere near the Technicolorful, outré, marginalized and tolerant Neverneverland of his patent but entirely personal canvas -- for this is the vision we hug and have of a kinky, tragic and humane land that in reality exists nowhere but on surfaces (Sigh!), not even in relatively artistic and modern Barcelona.
Unfortunately for other Spanish cineasts, however, the trap has been set, baited with the cheese of fame and Hollywood, too alluring to pass up.
Thus Tattoo Bar (Tatawo), screenwritten and directed by Jo Sol (the Catalonian Jordi Sole), a Pedro-clone film that tries too hard, and long, to outkink the Master. As acted by an effective, at times excellent, ensemble-like group of youngish actors known in Spain through films, television and theater -- and including one member of a distinguished acting family, the brother of the sultry and no longer so young Ángela Molina -- Sol's story is out of the world of Carson McCullers: prostitute "Bug" loves just-released convict Mariel, whose heart is set on wistful Simona, but she pines for Francis, who in his turn cares for nothing, really, but selfish Freedom and Enlightenment.
That is, love is never reciprocated, not in the briefly, mutedly filmed Indian hill country or on the sacred Ganges and certainly not in the Old Quarter, or Barrio Gótico, of Barcelona, filled with (in the film) whores, drugs, crime, perversion, free-spirited or mean-spirited kooks and crooks and all centered around the upstairs tattoo parlor-downstairs rocking bar opened in Mariel's former home.
There is a fair show of flesh -- called "full frontal" in Puritan America and not uncommon or remarked on in Spanish cinema for years now -- a realistic but finally tiring flow of the Peninsula's imaginative and very common profanity (unimaginatively rendered in stodgy subtitles), and an attempt at picturing the pathos of what passes for unrequited longing. But a little longing goes a long way, and in this case, even though short by today's bloated standards, ninety minutes is too much. With extraneous characters, supposed plot twists and dead red herrings that make Raymond Chandler seem simple, Tattoo Bar is confusing and confused, and one is pressed to decide who is whose brother, husband, boy- or girlfriend, wife, lover. But then, who cares?
If your taste runs toward live flesh, maybe a little tattooing blood in close-up, a brighter colored hippie world than Blowup's Swinging London, you might take in a half-hour or so, no more, of Tattoo Bar. If you would like to see what is being done in the way of excellent, undeservedly little-known, work out of Spain, try, for example, Iciar Bollain's Flowers from Another World. Try hard, for like so much good stuff, that wonderful 1999 variation on Westward the Women never found a U.S. distributor.
(Released in subtitles by Art Mattan Productions; not rated by MPAA.)