The only world premiere in the annual New Directors/New Films series — a joint festival between New York City’s Museum of Modern Art and the Film Society of Lincoln Center — Lucio Castro’s feature debut End of the Century is an erotic, emotional imagining of a Grindr hookup as memory palace. The film opens in the present as Ocho (Juan Barberini), a poet from New York, cruises the streets and beaches while on vacation in Barcelona. One day, from the balcony of his Airbnb, Ocho sees Javi (Ramon Pujol), a fetching, brawny specimen, his biceps bulging out the sleeves of a KISS t-shirt.
They later do some abortive ogling by the seashore. But fate seems to want them together: When Ocho again spots Javi from his terrace, he works up the courage to call out and invite him up. Turns out Javi is also on vacation (from Berlin) and is staying right next door. After beers and some small talk, the two end up screwing, though Ocho, hilariously, has to run out mid-coitus — and despite being on PrEP (very 2019) — to purchase some condoms.
Space-age love song.
There’s a pattern for this sort of thing — once beaten off, a half-hearted exchange of WhatsApp contact info and a permanent parting of the ways. But Javi does reach out to Ocho, and over wine and cheese during their second encounter, he casually drops this tidbit: They’ve met before.
The ensuing flashback, via a breathless smash cut, to Charli XCX’s beloved 1999 beautifully deepens what we’ve just experienced. It almost doesn’t matter that neither Ocho nor Javi look demonstrably different since they carry themselves much more callowly and uncertainly. Ocho, especially, is less noticeably wizened as he arrives during a backpacking excursion at the apartment of a friend, Sonia (Mía Maestro), who turns out to be dating Javi.
Both men are closeted, though an attraction is still palpable. Javi has channeled his anxieties into an in-progress movie about Y2K that he claims he might never finish. Ocho, meanwhile, is so paranoid about sex that a random hookup in a park sends him retching into the bathroom, as well as to a charmingly quaint WebMD page about oral sex and HIV.
Different era, though Castro isn’t longing for one decade over another so much as he’s exploring the porousness of time — the way even a dropped connection can resonate far beyond what we might envision. That guy who you once drunkenly hooked up with to the Flock of Seagulls synth-pop smash “Space Age Love Song” (the film’s finest, sexiest scene) could have been the one. But perhaps it’s enough that he was just one of many?
Life is going to sort you out, regardless, and End of the Century is at its best whenever Castro keeps things thematically and temperamentally woozy. It’s a mark of the writer-director’s generousness that, in the third act, he gifts his two protagonists some bittersweet wish-fulfillment, though it feels oddly conventional given everything that’s preceded.
Aesthetically, the film is much more rigorous, with the compositions by cinematographer Bernat Mestres frequently doing Antonioni-esque dancing about architecture. One shot of Ocho’s head peering out from the top of a modernist building makes the allusion explicit, as does a finale that strains a bit too heavily toward the symphony of absence and alienation that concludes L’Eclisse (1962), though in a much gentler register.
End of the Century is a fine debut about a fleeting romance nonetheless.
Cast: Juan Barberini, Ramon Pujol, Mía Maestro, Mariano Lopez Seoane, Helen Celia Castro-Wood
Director-writer-editor: Lucio Castro
Producers: Joanne Lee, Josh Wood
Cinematography: Bernat Mestres
Music: Robert Lombardo
Casting: Maria La Greca
Venue: New Directors/New Films