Sunday, February 06, 2005

Tempus Fugit

A delightful and deceptively clever time-travel caper from Catalan film-maker Enric Folch who, before the projector whirred into life, stood up and explained how he set about telling a story about ordinary people saving the world - one that would in fact celebrate the absence of big name stars like Bruce Willis.

Tempus Fugit is the brand name of a drug indicated for time travel. The leaflet inside warns "keep out of the reach of children". A box of this potentially dangerous product has been brought back to contemporary Barcelona by a tall blond man in a bowler hat called Andros. He reveals that he has come back to persuade shy watchmaker Ramon to prevent the imminent end of the world but later admits that he himself was the clumsy intern at the Time Control Centre who accidentally created the problem in the first place. He unleashes even more trouble by dropping his box of Tempus Fugit on the pavement outside Ramon's house.

The tablets are marked -1/2 - 4 +8 etc. In the first third of the story the complexity seems to be growing expontentially as several of the characters (and even a dog) start popping the pills, but Folch isn't about to allow his narrative to disappear up its own paradoxes like so many others of this genre. He reins in the various strands and then sets up the climax - in fact two climaxes. One of these is quite dark, but you hardly notice such is the lighthearted tone of the movie.

Indeed Tempus Fugit wears its SciFi garb very lightly. It's really a warm-hearted paean to the rhythms of ordinary lives lived around a second-tier town square somewhere within the grid of Barcelona. Man from the future Andros makes the imperfect and unassuming present moment sound like the best place to be even though he claims to come from a world where disease and poverty has been eradicated and the "last of the smokers was executed some time ago"!

Made by Catalans in Catalan for local TV, this film is an exercise in gentle self-mockery. A story about dull, ordinary people might just have resulted in a dull ordinary film, but Folch introduces an element of frantic comic excitement in the form of fanatical Barca fan Terrades who lives across the corridor from Ramon. The scene where he is sitting sharing a meal with his double from the future is masterfully scripted. If only all Sci-Fi were this playful.

Terrades doesn't quite steal the show though - Folch turns Ramon's sheer ordinariness into the best gag of the film. Andros has said he can't tell Ramon what it is he must do to save the world until five minutes before he is due to do it because of the danger of introducing "other variables". In the end it turns out that all Ramon has to do is not buy a packet of eucalyptus lozenges at the news stand, something that he otherwise does every day of his uneventful life. In the hilarious scene that follows Ramon despairs that Andros has picked him precisely because he would be the last person to ever change the course of world events, but eventually summons his determination and strides towards the news stand wearing Neo-style black sunglasses. The parody is completed when the camera spins 360 degrees around him when he stretches out his hand for the newspaper.

Raj commented afterwards that Folch had cleverly used the town square as a stage for the locating the characters and the drama. Wherever you look in this low-budget gem there's something to admire. There's a fifth main character, a pretty girl at the news stand called Monica. She is familiar and benevolent with all the weird and wonderful inhabitants of the square - that straightforward openness of the Iberian woman. In one scene we see her away from her place of work she has apparently picked up Andros and led him towards her apartment. He gallantly explains that he might not be around for much longer and she retorts coquetishly "Yo solo busco un buen polvo" ('I'm only after a good shag'). Andros is of course taken aback at her forwardness. That Folch has taken the time to fashion a minor character into a living emblem for an urban culture that is open, kind and vivacious yet at the same time unashamedly hedonistic, is a mark of the care and craft that went into making this great little film.

Well-deserved applause for the director at the end.

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