Volver a Empezar (Begin the Beguine, 1982)
Directed by: José Luis Garci
Written by: José Luis Garci, Ángel Llorente
Starring: Antonio Ferrandis, Encarna Paso, José Bódalo, Agustín González.
Written by Peter Berry
José Luis Garci’s earliest films, Asignatura Pendiente and Solos en la madrugada both represent attempts to portray the disruptive consequences that the democratic transition could have in the personal lives of middle class Spaniards. Volver a Empezar (Beguin the Beguine) is somewhat of a piece with these early works but is of a decidedly warmer and gentler tone. The Oscar winning film sees an ailing and ageing writer, Antonio Albajara (played by Antonio Ferrandis), return to Gijón for the first time in 40 years. Albajara, after receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature, decides to pay a flying visit to his hometown, where he has not set foot since being exiled during the Civil War. In the space of a few days, he suffers the sycophancies of an ingratiating hotel owner (a hilarious Agustín González), reminisces with his former Sporting Gijón teammates and rekindles a romance with Elena (Encarna Paso), the girl he left behind.
As with much of Garcí’s work, the film is deeply sentimental. Pachelbel’s canon in D major opens the film, as Albajara sees Gijón for the first time in over 40 years, and snatches of this and the titular Cole Porter classic are laid on thick throughout the duration of the film. It is arguable that both pieces of music are overused, with a subsequent diminishment of their effectiveness. Interestingly, Garci has made a similar argument about another of his early films, El crack dos, in a recent podcast. Yet to dismiss the film as cloying would be an error. The film is certainly concerned with nostalgia (a favourite theme of Garci’s). But how could this be otherwise given the film’s storyline? The key to the film’s success is that the sentimentalism does not overwhelm. This is thanks to Garci’s balancing act which he achieves allowing his characters to fondly remember the past, whilst also living fully in the present. The nostalgia is additionally tempered by Albajara’s illness which ensures that his and Elena’s renewed romance is without a long term future and this tragic note resonates throughout the film. This is especially present in a moving scene featuring Albajara and his friend Roxu (played by an avuncular José Bódalo) in which the two characters stoically discuss Antonio’s grave diagnosis.
There is also an almost reverent tone adopted towards the democratic transition which was arguably still ongoing when the film was being made (1981). This is in evidence in the conversation which Albajara conducts with the then King Juan Carlos, who calls the writer to congratulate him on his Nobel Prize. Albajara’s praise for the King, with which he lauds Juan Carlos during the phone call is an indication of the high esteem in which the monarch was held at the time. This is striking to the modern viewer, aware of the former King’s abdication and recent exile. Sadly this scene is never quite believable, as Pedro Ruiz’s impersonation of the King does not quite ring true. It does however allow the viewer to see more of Agustín Gonzalez’s talent for comic acting.
Despite winning the Best Foreign Feature at the 1983 Oscars, the first Spanish film to do so, Volver a Empezar did not receive a warm critical response; both Diego Galán and Roger Ebert criticised the simplicity of the film and its lack of plot development. Perhaps for this reason, it languishes in relative obscurity today. A DVD of the film is hard to come by and the film does not appear to be available to stream. But this warm, well-cast film, with its rare and convincing portrayal of romance in the third age, deserves more viewers.
Peter Berry works in the public sector and lives with his family in Manchester, England.
Image: España es Cultura