Not many movies have the autumn of life at the center of the story. Those that do are most often thinly veiled Viagra commercials with Jack Nicholson or Sean Connery cavorting with leading ladies young enough to be their granddaughters. Even serious-minded independent films about seniors, such as Roger Michell's "Venus," deal with the same old geriatric fantasy that is hypocritical in its blatant sexism. But as regulars of any of the uptown movie houses can attest, there is a large, underserved audience that takes full advantage of its senior-citizen discounts.
Perhaps someone is finally catching on. On the heels of the relatively successful documentary "[email protected]," which told the story of an oldster chorus that sings modern rock songs, the little-known Spanish film "Elsa & Fred" concerns a late-blossoming romance between the loud and manipulative octogenarian Elsa (China Zorrilla) and the hypochondriac widower Alfredo (Manuel Alexandre) who has just moved into the apartment next door. Elsa is not above scheming and lying to show Alfredo how to get a life, but in reality she is the one nearing death. Not surprisingly, Alfredo ultimately returns the favor by helping Elsa fulfill her lifelong dream — re-enacting the much revered Trevi Fountain scene from Federico Fellini's "La Dolce Vita."
Marcos Carnevale, who directed and co-wrote the film, has created two wholly believable protagonists, however insufferable they may also be. But there's really nothing new under this setting sun. Despite all the Fellini references, "Elsa & Fred," which opens in the city today, is far from whimsical. It turns out to be as conventional and predictable as the Nicholson vehicle "Something's Gotta Give," sans cross-generational dating politics. The fact that Elsa is the older of the two proves a welcome change of pace, but that doesn't mean the film is any less sexist than those Hollywood fairy tales with their dirty old Don Juans. All the female characters here are overbearing, self-absorbed shrews. Ms. Zorrilla gives a splendid performance, but the monstrous Elsa often brings to mind Doris Roberts as Marie Barone in "Everybody Loves Raymond." Perhaps there are moviegoers out there who can identify with characters such as these, but many will probably find that spending two hours with them is an excruciating ordeal.