Evocative purple skies bear witness to a tantalizing and determining fling in Lucio Castro’s structurally audacious debut “End of the Century,” the gay equivalent of Richard Linklater’s “Before” trilogy, distilled into a single film that’s constructed of buoyant encounters separated by two decades, conversational walks through a European city, and the illusion of a married-with-children future.
“KISS!” yells Ocho (Juan Barberini), an Argentine poet visiting Barcelona in 2019, from a balcony in reference to a T-shirt that Javi (Ramón Pujol), an ex-local now residing in Berlin who is in town to see family, wears as he walks by Ocho’s Airbnb-rented apartment. It’s the first word of dialogue spoken following a day of mute courting that culminates in intense intercourse. The garment itself is later unmasked as a keepsake charged with relevance beyond being trite rock-group merchandise.
Instinctually animalistic, the impromptu sexual rendezvous acts as Castro’s first indicator of the opposite wavelengths these two men are on. Javi is cautious and requests they use a condom, while Ocho, on PrEP, is used to unprotected penetration with Grindr hookups. This divide is furthered exposed when Javi outs himself as a sentimental romantic with a great memory for incidents that marked him spiritually, which contrasts with Ocho’s dreams of total freedom and lack of accountability in the aftermath of a 20-year monogamous relationship.
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In their swoon-worthy roles, Barberini and Pujol exude a sensual effervescence scented with yearning, regret, and acquiescence. Their banter masquerades as that of a platonic bromance between two bearded, straight-acting, and traditionally masculine men, and yet with every exchange, while drinking on rooftops that oversee the touristy Spanish town, it becomes more apparent that each symbolizes a watershed for the other’s history. Incandescent and disarmingly seductive, their performances are full-blooded magic.
A flashback located halfway through the duo’s post-coital date puts everything into perspective, disclosing the heterosexual lives they both led when they first crossed paths at the turn of the millennium. Comfortably played by actress and singer Mía Maestro (“The Strain”), opera performer Sonia inadvertently brought them together when one was her boyfriend and the other her longtime friend. Their fiery meeting back then, just as Ocho grappled with his sexual orientation and Javi contemplated finishing a heady documentary, had the power to alter their destinies personally and professionally.
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Castro doesn’t cast younger actors to play Javi and Ocho in the 90s, and he also doesn’t try to disguise his stars’ ages. Barberini sports gray hairs throughout. It’s atemporal casting not only for the practicality of not having to switch performers for others (who may or may not be capable of replicating their sizzling chemistry) but also a physical manifestation of the idea that even if, on the surface, they are the same people, internally the change has been profound.
The passage of time is instead communicated in minuscule, almost imperceptible details, like a camera and a map in the past instead of a cell phone, or the palpable, delayed charm of a postcard in comparison to the immediacy of a WhatsApp message. Castro’s writing may come across as deceivingly loose thanks to the summery vibes that cinematographer Bernat Mestres’s imagery summons and the seemingly effortless candor in Pujol and Barberini’s charismatic turns, but be certain that every visual element and relayed intimate detail pays off.
Such avid manipulation of what objects within the frame can express is applied exponentially to the movie’s climactic dreamlike sequence where a fridge, at first empty and then overflowing with healthy food, serves as the gateway allegory for a transitional scenario where Ocho goes from childless bachelor to content family man. The vivid confrontation with a version of his present he hadn’t considered plausible is neither harrowing nor idyllic, but it gets him to reflect on his fear of inescapable stability.
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As its grand title suggests, “End of the Century” is about turning points, conclusions and beginnings, moments and people that appear at a precise time as catalysts, even if they are not there to stay. Even Castro’s decision to shoot the characters’ two major chats around twilight is conducive to these notions of interim periods. Ocho and Javi’s heart-to-hearts happen in that glowing, transitional interlude right before the day turns into night, while their departures are heralded by sunrise.
Hiding in between the exuberant lines of its casually existentialist dialogue, there’s an implied sadness to their interactions in the present, made all the more tragic when juxtaposed with the glimpse of promise seen as they danced and kissed in their youth. Once willing to give it all at the risk of heartbreak, Pujol’s Javi in 2019 wants to protect himself and not jeopardize what he’s built with another man and a young daughter that links him back to Sonia. For Ocho, who was at first dismissive, remembering the misconnection is a sobering blow.
Intoxicated by the possibility of what could have been, the fleeting beauty of what briefly was, and the bittersweet miracle of having serendipitously reconnected, its two lovers use their time together to take stock of who they are today, how their priorities and aspirations transformed, and how in spite of their extended disconnection, what they mutually ignited in each other has proven transcendent. “End of the Century” is a sublimely haunting experience that will make you sigh in recognition of the what-ifs in your own life.