The Zero Effect

Km. 0 tries a little tenderness, and it works

When it made the rounds of the gay and lesbian film festivals last year, Km. 0 (Kilometer Zero) found itself the winner of several audience awards--prizes voted on by festivalgoers themselves for the film they happened to enjoy the most. Now finally opening in Dallas after wide release this summer, the ensemble-cast Spanish comedy couldn't arrive at a better time. For not only has the cultural atmosphere become more "gay-friendly," but a "people-friendly" movie--which this gay-straight ensemble piece most certainly is--is a welcome relief from silly sequels, brain-numbing CGI visual effects and an overall attitude that the only thing worth filming is something that's blowing up.

Written and directed by Juan Luis Iborra and Yolanda Garcia Serrano, Km. 0 takes its name from a popular meeting place in Madrid's central "Puerta del Sol" area. It's an attractive, none-too-crowded plaza with small shops and restaurants of the sort every city hopes to feature. But as the filmmakers show, what makes any city special are the people who live in it, and those who come and go herein are a nicely mixed assortment whose lives crisscross in a style that suggests a three-way collaboration between Robert Altman (the ensemble cast dynamic), Pedro Almodovar (the free-wheeling sexuality) and Jacques Demy (some rather stunning, and very amusing, coincidences amid the principal characters). What holds it all together is a refusal to regard gay lives as any less deserving of respect than straight ones--and the film in fact features more of the latter than the former--bolstered by a disinclination to regard sexual pleasure across the board as degrading in any way, even when the parties involved are prostitutes (of both sexes). If there's any difference between the film's characters that stands out, it's the dreamy bemusement of the men and the hard-edged practicality of the women.

When Marga (Concha Velasco), a bored, well-to-do, middle-aged but still strikingly lovely homemaker, is shown calling up a male "escort service" for a bit of afternoon delight, the filmmakers refuse to make her a figure of fun, even when she comes to suspect that her trysting partner may be her long-lost son. Likewise Tatiana (Elisa Matilla), a tougher-than-nails easily enraged hooker, isn't treated as a neo-realist cliché, but rather as an opportunity for romantic invention. "I'm not your Pretty Woman," she snarls to a young would-be filmmaker (Carlos Fuentes) after he's taken advantage of her services only to then give her advice on how to dress and act to better her lot. And indeed she isn't, any more than Silvia (Merce Pons) is a typical ambitious actress; it isn't every aspiring starlet who'd go so far as to throw herself in front of a moving car driven by an important theater director (Georges Corraface) to score an audition.

Alongside such high-intensity histrionics, the film's gay characters appear relatively becalmed. When Benjamin (Miguel Garcia) scores a date via the Internet with Bruno (Victor Ullate Jr.), it looks like a typical gay male dalliance. But when a suddenly smitten Benjamin decides he wants to turn a casual sex date into a real relationship the film smoothly shifts gears toward tenderness. The same is true of the plight of virginal button-downed businessman Sergio (Alberto San Juan), who claims to be engaged to be married but may not have come to grips with his true sexual orientation. In a typical American film--even a "sophisticated" comedy--he'd merely be a fool. Here he's like everyone else--a little lost, a little sad and a lot hopeful about finding his place in the world. What makes his plight compelling is the filmmakers' refusal to see sexual desire as a lesser form of human interaction than any other.

It's this same disinclination to judge that allows Km. 0to move from raucous comedy to bittersweet romance, often within the same scene, and even allows enough dramatic wiggle room for a musical number, featuring "Maybe This Time"--a song I never thought I'd care to listen to ever again, even in Spanish. But that's what separates good films from bad. And that's what makes Km. 0stand out.

 
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