We were a long way from the multiplex, at least spiritually, during aGLIFF. Few 20-screen behemoths would show a musical about a narcoleptic pre-op transsexual who's trying to save money for the big operation. Fortunately, Austin audiences got a chance to see the Spanish film 20 Centimeters during the festival last weekend, and the movie screened to a fairly full theater.
I'm sure that somewhere out there, people are trying to describe 20 Centimeters by referencing other films: "It's Hedwig and the Angry Inch meets Pedro Almodovar!" "Imagine Chicago if Renee Zellweger had an eight-inch ..." Ahem. Although the film does intersperse over-the-top musical numbers with a serious storyline, it's not derivative, although it is sprinkled with film in-jokes -- for example, one dance number was oddly reminiscent of Grease.
Marieta (Monica Cervera) is a pre-op transsexual, nee Adolfo, who dresses and identifies as a woman except for those 20 centimeters (nearly 8 inches, baby) that she hopes will be surgically removed someday. She turns tricks to earn money, but wants a legitimate job even if it's working as a night-shift janitor in a bank. She's also narcoleptic -- during especially emotional or stressful times, she falls asleep. Her dreams are the often-elaborate musical numbers that appear throughout the film. Marieta is living with Tomas (Miguel O'Dogerty), whom she by turns abuses as a "dwarf" and cuddles with in the bath. But she swoons over Raul (Pablo Puyol), the hunky fruit stocker at the market, who wears leather jackets and takes her for rides on his motorcycle. She and her neighbor Berta (Concha Galan) dream of the day they will escape to Brazil, where everything is cheaper and better, including the surgery.
The musical numbers are symbolic representations of Marieta's mood at any given time, and most of them are loads of fun. Some are in Spanish, some French, and some English. Each song has a different style to it: Torch song, Broadway show tune, old-school music video, and even Bollywood extravaganza. I liked the undead whore/saint number best, although the rendition of Madonna's song "True Blue" was also memorable.
20 Centimeters relies on quirky characters to sustain interest and humor. One sidesplitting scene introduces all the women in Marieta's apartment building, and they're all characters. The woman who gives Marieta hormonal injections, the temp agency clerk, the women who run the fruit stand ... everyone has some outstanding trait. Even Raul has his little quirks. Rossy de Palma, whom I remember from various Almodovar movies, appears in only one scene as La Frio ("Icebox"), but it's one of the best scenes in the movie. Monica Cervera convinces us that she's playing a transsexual, although I am often wary of women playing these roles. The actual 20 centimeters did seem cartoonishly disproportionate, however -- which reminds me, do be aware that the movie contains full frontal nudity.
The movie has its flaws: Marieta can get downright vicious and nasty sometimes, Berta's son Paulito never seems fully realized, several subplots vanish without resolution, and the ending is a too pat considering the roughness of the preceding story. Still, every time 20 Centimeters feels a little slow, or annoying, or vague, the musical numbers kick in and their intense energy seems to make everything all right.