Elsa & Fred comes off as condescending

Elsa & Fred

on June 26, 2008 by John P. McCarthy
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Picasso’s paradoxical quip “it takes a long time to become young” appears in the promo material for this Spanish romantic comedy and applies insofar as Elsa & Fred is one long senior moment. Marcos Carnevale’s patronizing take on the relationship between an elderly widow and widower in Madrid unspools like the vision of a middle-aged person intent on propagating stereotypes about youthfulness and the golden years. Elderly viewers may well resent the tagline sentiment “you are never too old to be young” being attached to such a staid, condescending piece. In the unlikely event Elsa & Fred catches fire and draws busloads of seniors on retirement-home outings, there’s little chance they’ll be inspired to break free of their cocoons; facility administrators needn’t fear a rash of courtship rituals, though it will reduce the need for sleep aids.

Seven months after losing his wife, Fredo (Manuel Alexandre) moves into the well appointed flat next door to Elsa (China Zorrilla), a septuagenarian widow of 27 years. Both have overly attentive offspring. In Fredo’s case, it’s his shrewish daughter, while Elsa has one rich, conscientious son and a second, a struggling artist, whom she supports on the sly. Elsa wastes no time latching on to the grieving Fredo, who’s quite a formal gentleman. In truth, anybody would seem reserved next to this vivacious dame. Alas, she has a secret—cancer—to explain her carpe diem approach to life and the fresh meat that so conveniently becomes her neighbor. She casts a spell, and after a while, Fredo is smiling and laughing and making a concerted effort not to be such a hypochondriac. She admonishes him, “You’re not afraid of dying. You’re afraid of living.” There are two thin subplots involving sponging offspring, but basically we witness two pleasant-looking, bourgeois geriatrics fall in love and pull crazy stunts like dining-and-ditching. It’s life affirming and quaint in theory; in practice, it’s a slog.

Thanks to middling production values, the movie isn’t enlivened by any artsy or stylish touches. The lead performances are accomplished and dignified, with Uruguayan Zorrilla asked to limn a more complex role. Unfortunately, the script credited to Carnevale and two female writers doesn’t capitalize on Elsa’s penchant for fibbing. We’re led to wonder whether she’s a pathological liar, senile or a bit of both. But then, her almost dangerously nutty disposition isn’t pursued. A twist involving her departed husband remains a confusing surprise.

Also going for naught is Elsa’s obsession with La Dolce Vita. As a young woman, she was the spitting image of Anita Ekberg, and she’s always dreamt of being in love and splashing through Rome’s Trevi Fountain as Ekberg and Marcello Mastroiani do in the film. Of course, that’s where she and Fredo end up, acting out Carnevale’s fantasy more than Elsa’s, one suspects. What would Fellini think? Only the harshest cynic would belittle a woman’s cinema-fueled fantasy or reject the possibility of romance flowering at an advanced age. And yet, in many ways Elsa & Fred represents the predictable and complacent attitude the character Marcello is trying to shake off throughout Fellini’s masterpiece.

Distributor: Distrimax/Mitropoulos
Cast: Manuel Alexandre, China Zorrilla, Blanca Portillo, Robert Carnaghl, Jose Angel Egido, Gonzalo Urtizberea and Omar Munoz
Director: Marcos Carnevale
Screenwriters: Marcos Carnevale, Lily Ann Martin and Marcela Guerty
Producer: Jose Antonio Felez
Genre: Romantic comedy; Spanish- and Italian-language, subtitled
Rating: PG for some mild thematic elements and language
Running time: 106 min.
Release date: June 27 NY/LA

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