The neurotic director, the foul-mouthed producer, the debutante who saves the day and more are all depicted in Last Call, Francisco Franco’s pleasing take on a fraught attempt to mount a production of Albert Camus’ heavyweight classic Caligula. Fast-moving and skillfully juggling a sizeable cast in a witty blend of farce and drama, the film features a range of characters that have been around since 42nd Street (celebrating its 80th birthday this year) but cannily updates them to good effect. Enjoyable though it is, it’s hard to imagine Call being heard much beyond Spanish-speaking territories.
Early scenes show skittish Isa (Karina Gidi) removing the elaborate, Mussolini-inspired staging for her show in favor of something simpler, the first of a series of impulsive decisions that threaten to bring the production to a halt. This is followed by the departure of divo Daniel (Jorge Poza) — “this will be my Tour de France, sorry, tour de force” – and the high-risk recruitment of Julia (Irene Azuela) in his place, forced to make the leap from yogurt ad to playing the evil emperor.
Behind all this, several sub-stories are bubbling away, none of them particularly original or explored in any depth, but nicely-handled nonetheless: the relationship between veteran actor Fernando Lujan (best-known outside Mexico for his compelling performance in Arturo Ripstein’s No One Writes to the Colonel ) and Julia’s depressive mother; Isa’s declining marriage to Adrian (Martin Altomaro); and, less amusingly than presumably intended, the pursuit of stagehand Nacho (Kristyan Ferrer) by a gang of Emos.
Dramatically, things are too busy to allow any emotional steam to build up: the real pleasures of the film are more in its performances that in its plots. It’s all juggled skillfully if superficially by an agile script and rapid editing that at times feels rushed; in general, the best scenes are those built around the bitchy banter of the dressing room, where, the sense of solidarity between the actors, aware that they’re bound together by something stronger than their petty differences, is nicely palpable.
The actors all seem to be enjoying themselves, with the script supplying enough sharp gags to make their efforts worthwhile: “I’m not doing anything in this play,” complains faded diva Amanda (Rebecca Jones) from the stage. “Can’t I at least do nothing in a more visible place?”
Gidi is fine as the depressive director but is overshadowed by Maria Trevino as her fictional assistant Ceci, a wonderfully vibrant combination of insecurity and ambition whose classy rendition of “Let the Sunshine In” from Hair is a real show stopper. Anabel Ferreira as Geo, the permanently hung over producer, makes a superbly spiky Queen Bitch. (Along with the audience award, the female ensemble collectively took best actress at the Guadalajara festival.) But, inevitably in a film with such a large cast, some roles and performances are steamrolled into oblivion.
Thankfully there’s little trace of either the campy excesses or self-indulgent navel gazing to which movies about the theater are prone. But the script does make way for brief moments of pathos, as Fernando wonders what will happen to him when he can no longer remember his lines, in the relationship between Julia and her mother, or through the quietly evocative final scene, which opens with a beautifully-composed close-up of Azuela’s face. The fact too that it’s all happening in the context of rehearsals for a ponderous classic of existential drama also makes for several moments of delicious counterpoint, with Camus’ play sometimes a commentary on the characters’ various issues.
Also worthy of mention is a noisy, late-entry cameo from Mexican grande dame Silvia Pinal (Bunuel’s early 60s muse), here making her hundredth movie appearance.
Production: Las Naves Producciones, Fidecine, UNAM, CUEC
Cast: Karina Gidi, Irene Azuela, Mariana Trevino, Fernando Lujan, Cecilia Suarez, Rebecca Jones, Ricardo Blume, Anabel Ferreira, Silvia Pinal, Jorge Poza, Alfonso Dosal, Krystian Ferrer, Martín Altomaro
Director: Francisco Franco
Screenwriter: Francisco Franco, Maria Renee Prudencio, based on the play “Caligula, probablemente” by Franco, Ignacio Guzmán
Producer: Laura Imperiale
Director of photography: Erika Licea
Production designer: Alejandro García
Editor: Mariana Rodriguez
Sound: Pablo Tamez, Matias Barberis
Wardrobe: Adela Cortazar, Jerildy Bosch
Sales: Habanero Film Sales
No rating, 87 minutes