End of the Century, the first feature from Argentine filmmaker Lucio Castro, revolves around a hookup and — at first blush — seems slight. The film finds Ocho (played by Juan Barberini) visiting Barcelona from New York, where he wanders the city alone before looking for someone to meet. He spots a man from his Airbnb balcony, jerks off in his room, sees some sights, and reads a paperback on the beach. Castro's direction and cinematographer Bernat Mestres' shooting frame the city as largely empty, a sparse landscape that feels psychologically interior, in which any human encounter acquires additional weight. In this sort of world, a chance encounter is made to feel fated, enlarged in its significance.
Chance plays a major role here; in a romantic conceit alien to so much of modern dating, End's central meeting takes place without apps. The man Ocho spotted previously, named Javi (Ramon Pujol), turns out to be one he runs into again, twice more. The second time Ocho sees him, he invites him up to his room. Truer to life as we know it now, the film's leads (both around 40) fuck basically as an introduction and get to know each other after. Though Javi's trip is ostensibly for work, its air seems aimless, and the two pass more time together in a city that still seems nearly empty of others. They're both in limbo, at least for a few days; Ocho reveals he's on a break from a 20-year relationship, and Javi shares that he's in an open marriage but has a daughter and husband in his adoptive home of Berlin. Before long, the two realize they've met already, some 20 years earlier in Barcelona. Javi reminds Ocho that they shared an affair together then, as well as an acquaintance with Javi's ex-girlfriend Sonia (Mía Maestro).
From there, the film unspools for a while in flashback before returning to a contemporary setting; beneath the latter lies an amicably waged, long-buried love triangle that evokes possibilities of what might have been and reshapes the encounter we've seen so far. End's early introductions are reframed as newly significant, ritual repetitions; Ocho and Javi pass through similar spaces as before, pick up food at the same stores and drink tequila and beer on the same sorts of scenic rooftops. Across the movie's years, they basically do the same, making their new encounter feel at times like a revision of the old one, even as it can't be.
This sense is made a little more uncanny in Castro's rendering, for the space between its temporal settings doesn't feel too vast. In End's flashbacked filmic past (implied to be 1999), there were more books in homes, the technology was a bit different, but the people (somewhat distractingly) look about the same. Foregoing recasting, aging makeup, or the increasingly popular trend of de-aging CGI for reasons likely due to budget, End of the Century treats memory as slippery and subjective, time as eerily cyclical — and has quite a bit thematically up its sleeve. The result of this underemphasized distance (whatever financial reasons might have factored in) is a heightening of End's questions as to possibility in life. Things that can't or shouldn't happen feel more like they could or ought to; what felt trivial 20 years back can feel somehow monumental now. Memories, it seems, can have a way of undermining one another.
What End of the Century doesn't bring in drama it offers up in patient attention to life's unexpected turns and movements and the heft they acquire over time. Though most romances all but ask viewers to engage in acts of projection, casting themselves or their own fantasies atop the principal characters, End's two leads feel throughout like well-rounded people — and it's to the film's credit that the queer nature of their relationship is never dramatized as such. The questions raised and feelings evoked are transferable to anyone in and out of romantic contexts, but never at the expense of its characters' personhood. Though End addresses identity convincingly, it's concerned more with its characters' feelings in a way that feels justifiably light on social history or politics (it would take a longer movie to get into how those change over 20 years' time) — as well as the interactions between chance and choice, memory, and history. Its thematic breadth and risk of vagueness — as in, say, Before Sunrise, which it at times resembles — are counterbalanced as in that story by specificity in character and setting, as well as the energy of its performances. Making much of the gap between lives imagined, remembered, and actually lived, End of the Century engages fantasy without ever feeling false.
End of the Century has screenings at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 14 and Sunday, Nov. 17 at Film Lab, 3105 Holbrook Ave., Hamtramck; thefilmlab.org. Tickets are $8.
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