It is 1973, and the American sexual revolution has not yet spread to conservative, Franco-led Spain. Here frumpy housewives complain to their hairdressers that they thought “Last Tango in Paris” would be a musical.
Here, in “Torremolinos 73,” we meet Alfredo (Javier Cámara) and his wife Carmen (Candela Peña), a poor, young, happy couple living in a drab apartment and dodging the landlady as much as possible. The one divisive element in the couple’s loving relationship is a baby: She wants one and he is unsure. One night before lovemaking, Alfredo can’t find a condom, and Carmen says not to bother, because she wants to get pregnant anyway. Alfredo points out that if they can’t afford condoms, they certainly can’t afford a child. He makes a good point.
Alfred has a job selling encyclopedias door-to-door, a thankless and almost profitless chore. Then one weekend his boss, Don Carlos (Juan Diego), calls the salesmen and their wives on a retreat. He introduces them to a new product: “The World Audiovisual Encyclopedia of Reproduction,” already a hit in Scandinavia. Each installment features descriptions and homemade movies depicting the sexual practices in various countries: how the Egyptians do it, how the Germans do it, and so forth. Don Carlos has struck a deal with the Scandinavians to produce the Spanish installment of the encyclopedia, and he wants his salesmen and their wives to film themselves making love as part of this “instructional series.”
If it sounds like they’re being tricked into making porn, you’re probably right. “The World Audiovisual Encyclopedia of Reproduction” sounds fishy to me, too. At any rate, Don Carlos is paying 50,000 pesetas for each finished film, and goodness knows Alfredo and Carmen need the money….
Because this is a comedy, Carmen turns out to have a flair for dirty-movie acting (she dons a nurse’s uniform for one segment), and Alfredo is a natural at directing, setting up shots and fixing the lighting like a pro. The sex is always just them, and theirs is a loving, committed relationship — until Alfredo writes a screenplay and gets funding to produce it and is promptly replaced as male lead by a suave Danish actor (Mads Mikkelson).
The humor is mostly low-key, with writer/director Pablo Berger doing little to draw attention to his film’s highly unusual premise. Alfredo does not sputter or rant as things become frustrating; he has learned through his years of selling (or rather not selling) encyclopedias to maintain a friendly smile and an attitude of resignation. And dear Carmen, not classically beautiful or even particularly extroverted, finds a new self-confidence in this business of homemade porn.
The movie is sexually frank, but I wouldn’t call it titillating. The whole point is that Alfredo and Carmen don’t look like porn stars — they don’t even look like movie stars — but like regular people. Berger’s attention to detail extends not just to the early-’70s decor and costumes, but to the natural way the characters handle their odd situation. The film celebrates love and sexuality realistically, not pornographically.
B (1 hr., 31 min.; in Spanish with subtitles; )