I’ve just finished watching a lovely little film called Elsa and Fred. I must say that at first, I wasn’t quite sure I was going to like this movie, as Elsa appeared to be almost a caricature of a character – wildly and unbelievably eccentric. And yet, before I knew it, like Fred, I was involved.
Briefly, Elsa and Fred is the story of Fred, a newly-widowed, pleasant-looking, extremely decent but conventional man in his late seventies, who moves into an apartment across the hall from Elsa, an eccentric eighty-two –year-old woman (China Zorrilla) with an incredible zest for life and penchant for―well, lying.
As the movie begins, we see Fred (whose real name is Alfredo) through Elsa’s eyes. She describes him as “a bit opaque...like his inner light had gone out. All his life he’s been this boring person. He’s never stepped out of line, had an indiscretion… he loves being sick.”
And so he does. Fred, as adeptly played by Manual Alexandre, is a man who is well dressed, polite, quiet, and grieving. And though his grief is real, Elsa can’t help but wonder if his marriage was as humdrum as the rest of his life, for when asked to describe his newly deceased wife, Fred’s first response is to say that she was “tidy.”
From this we gather that their marriage was, if not a love affair, then comfortable, and he misses that familiarity and its trappings. Afraid of dying, Fred takes enough pills to fill a toilet bowl. When he confides his fears to Elsa, she comes up with a different diagnosis: “You’re not scared of dying,” she pronounces. “You’re scared of living.” And so the story unravels, as Elsa sets out to “make this dinosaur live.”
Like Fernanda Montenegro in Central Station, Ms. Zorilla takes what could be a highly unlikable character, and makes us care about her. Some, no doubt, will even envy Elsa’s spirit, and ability to get to the heart of the matter, without tip-toeing around.
As the credits rolled, and I thought about what I had just seen, I found myself comparing this 2005 film to 1988’s The Accidental Tourist. Totally different in many ways, these two films share one thing in common: they both center around strong, off-beat women who, despite the cards that fate has dealt them, remain full of life, and the men they pull out of the abyss— men who, for different reasons, have been afraid to take chances, make changes, and get on with their lives.
Elsa and Fred is not a perfect film. There is an over abundance of slow-fades, the music is heavy-handed, and some of the supporting characters are a bit too sharply drawn. And yet, there are so many good things about this piece, that I am even willing to forgive the screen writers for its inevitable conclusion.
Why? Because in this film, the story isn’t nearly as important or interesting as the people who inhabit it. To Zorrilla’s credit, we (along with Fred) come to adore Elsa, despite the fact that she is deeply flawed. And the subtly of Alexandre's performance takes us from here-to-there, with great joy and promise.
The sub-plot may hit home with some baby boomers, who have watched their aging, widowed parents find romance, and had to deal with their own feelings about what that means to them. Similarly, those who are of a certain age, and have had to deal with their grown children’s feelings and concerns, will also find something to think about here.
While Elsa and Fred is billed as a comedy, I would put it more into the ‘dramady’ category. Yes, there are funny moments― well-placed zingers and bits of business, mostly executed by Elsa, but for the most part, this is a movie with far more depth to it than say, 27 Dresses, When Harry Met Sally or The Runaway Bride. If you’re looking for light and airy, this ‘ain’t’ it.
I know that there are a good many people who shy away from foreign films by because they don’t want to deal with the subtitles. If you are among them, I hope you will set aside any misgivings, and watch this small but delightful film. Those of you who are Fellini fans will especially enjoy the movie’s nod to Anita Ekberg and Marcello Mastroianni, and the famous fountain scene in La dolce vita. For all this and more, I say, bravo!