There’s a deep emotional truth to be found in Lucio Castro’s directorial debut End of the Century. Like the artworks that protagonists and lovers Ocho (Juan Barberini) and Javi (Ramón Pujol) view midway through the film; End of the Century portrays the intimate complexities of romance with the kind of specificity and honesty that will stay with you long after you have looked away.
Coming in at a brisk 84-minutes, the film plays like Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy in micro. Castro’s script begins in 2019 with Ocho arriving in Barcelona as a tourist. He is totally alone, having just come off the back of a 20-year relationship, and that feeling is amplified by the fact that no one speaks for the first 12-minutes of the film. Ocho ricochets around the Barcelona, from his Airbnb, to a café, and to the beach where he sees the handsome Javi. The two silently flirt, staring and swimming, neither sure how to make the first move; Ocho later describes the situation as a chess game. The two leave without saying a word and for a moment it looks like that’s the last we will see Javi. But a scene later, while on his balcony, Ocho spots Javi, now sporting a KISS t-shirt, and calls out the films first line: “Kiss!”
As far as meet-cutes go it is practically a non-event, a one-word double entendre that is as much a command as it is a mating call. Yet, like much of the film, it is loaded with additional meaning that belies its humble exterior. Ocho invites Javi up to the apartment and mindless small-talk that quickly segues into the first of several sex scenes. But even this is not so straight-forward, Javi stops Ocho before penetration and asks him to use a condom. Ocho says he’s on PrEP but Javi is adamant, no condom means no sex, so Ocho leaves to purchase one. It is in moment’s like these — when the mundane becomes revealing — that Castro’s film excels.
A day later Ocho and Javi rendezvous on a rooftop where they drink wine and discuss their lives. Their brief disagreement over the condom proves telling of their overall character. Ocho is a poet from New York, his only commitment was his boyfriend. He is reveling in his newfound singleness and is so determined to experience new things that he borders on emotional recklessness. Javi meanwhile is more measured and cautious. He is married, has a daughter, and directs children’s TV, and while he is in an open relationship, he is also determined not to upset the balance of his good life. It is during this rooftop discussion that Castro also reveals the films trump card. Ocho comments that he feels a weird sensation as if he and Javi have met before, to which Javi responds, “we have met before”.
The remaining 60-minutes of the film splits itself between Javi and Ocho’s past romance in 1999 and their current one in 2019. Castro steers clear of scenes with sweeping heightened emotions — the biggest moment is a truly winning scene where Javi and Ocho drunkenly dance to “Space Age Love Song” by A Flock of Seagulls’. Instead, he doubles down on the mundane, drawing the viewer in with a series of small but realistic encounters that weave together into powerful romance. The time periods are paralleled, trapping both characters in the past and present simultaneously, making it impossible for them to fully act on their feelings but leaving them incapable of truly letting go.
That is the true beauty of End of the Century. Never does the film become a cloying gay romance-drama — homophobia, coming-out, and self-hated are never really cards on the table. This gives the film space to explore the far more compelling drama that springs from the nature of the romance — that these are two people who want to be together, so clearly should be together, yet circumstance has kept them apart. Barberini and Pujol do much of the heavy lifting, and their performances are as much to thank of the film’s success as Castro’s smart script and light-handed directing.
End of the Century is defined by its modernity, as the story Castro chooses to tell could only exist in 2019. It makes the film immediate and unique; giving it an edge and pertinence that many of its peers do not possess. The place the story builds to feels timely, true and, most importantly, earned. All of this results in End of the Century being one of the best gay romance films of the year.