The quirky comedy has been the mainstay of Australian cinema’s attack on the global box office for some while now, and is almost marketable as a (sub)genre in its own right, despite the broad range of subjects covered and the marked differences in tone and execution. La Spagnola has been labelled with the convenient shorthand of contemporary Aussie cinema – just mention Muriel’s Wedding (1994) and everyone knows what to expect. Except, of course, you don’t – no-one expected the sheer energy and joie de vivre of Strictly Ballroom (1992), the gentle dialogue of The Dish (2000) or the cross-dressing shenanigans in Priscilla: Queen of the Desert (1994). La Spagnola sits in its own corner of the "quirky Australian comedy" box, but contains the socially conscious background that is another defining feature of Australian cinema. More than a relatively lightweight film like Strictly Ballroom, this film is concerned with the integration and segregation of ethnic minority groups in Australia.
Lucia has a lot to contend with. Her feisty Spanish mother Lola is in the habit of bursting into uncontrollable rage, but then that’s hardly surprising as her father Ricardo is in the process of leaving the family for (shock horror) an Australian woman. And what’s more he’s spent their rent on a shiny red car, leaving Lola and Lucia on the brink of eviction with naught but a battered old banger, a pigeon coop and a goat called Elvis. What money they do have is brought in by Lucia’s job as a translator for the somewhat dubious local doctor.
This is not often a laugh out loud exercise in filmmaking, and a lot of the humour is dark to the point of night blindness. The main issue is Australia’s treatment of its Spanish and Italian communities. Ricardo’s infidelities are seen as far more shocking precisely because he has chosen to elope with an Australian woman. His departure is made more melodramatic because of the revelation that Lola is pregnant – her rage at her husband becomes focused on her daughter and her unborn child as she attempts to abort the foetus with a knitting needle. So not all chuckles, then. But this is the dark humour of cruelty, both to the characters and the audience – following this incident we are led to believe that Lola has died in the attempt, only to have our perceptions of the resulting funeral twisted twice. These sleight of hand devices occur right from the film’s opening – an argument conducted in a dust storm suggests initially that events take place in Spain, only for the wind to subside revealing that Lola’s diminutive home lies in the shadow of an Australian oil refinery. These dust strewn exits become a motif, as does the buried photograph that Lucia keeps altering, kept hidden in the base of her father’s pigeon coop.
This is an amiable film filled with incident and detail, a few surreal dreams, some coincidental plot twists and some quite stomach churning moments of cruelty between mother and daughter. There’s even a fair smattering of rampant sex and enough time for some gross-out comedy too. However, at times it seems unfocused and the comedy uncomfortably unsavoury. It never outlives its welcome but cannot really be said to be essential viewing. Tartan’s DVD does admirable justice to the often stunning cinematography with a top notch anamorphic transfer. Extras are, however, a touch on the spartan side with just a trailer and a number of text-based screens.