For the first ten minutes, End of the Century is a travelogue, focusing on the day-to-day mundane moves of solo traveler Ocho (Juan Barberini). We see him strolling the modern and gothic Barcelona streets. If he seems to meander is because he is. It’s 2019 and he’s alone. And gay. He checks into his AirBnB, has dinner by himself, sips a beer, people watches at the square. He gets bored, heads upstairs, and browses Grindr because either curious to see what men the city has to offer or perhaps he’s just horny, or a combination of both. He fails to find anyone, so he masturbates and goes to bed.
The next day, Ocho spots Javi (Ramón Pujol) in a snug KISS t-shirt walking down the street from his balcony. He’s intrigued. Later he sees him at the beach. They’re both shooting glances at each other, but nothing incriminating, nothing too lewd, just light flirtation. Ocho goes for a swim waiting to see if Javi will follow suit, but the latter either doesn’t get the hint or isn’t interested. Playing hard to get? When Ocho returns to shore, Javi is gone.
But third time’s the charm. Ocho once again sees Javi from his balcony and this time, he calls and invites him up. They have sex and subsequently share a bottle of wine at a rooftop. They have an extended conversation, getting to know each other through laughs and pensive pauses. Ocho tells Javi that their chemistry is so organic you’d think they met before. And in the first sharp twist in the film, Javi confesses that they have. In a smash cut, we go back in time to 1999.
Note: Spoilers ahead.
What appears to be a seemingly one-off sexy hookup in a sun-drenched Barcelona, becomes the canvas for a convincing portrayal of connection, partnership, and love. In his debut feature, Lucio Castro creates one of the most ambitious and wildly moving films in LGBTQ cinema in recent years.
What makes this movie so distinct? Castro decided that he wasn’t going to resort to title cards to announce the passage of time (say, Barcelona, 2019 or Barcelona, 1999), or, through makeup, have actors appear younger or older, or assign different actors to incarnate characters during specific moments in the narrative’s timeline. During a Q&A at this year’s New Directors/New Films, Castro explained why he shied away from an “objective past” in favor of a more personal memory. Essentially, the director wanted to stick to the way we collectively think of the past—we travel back in time looking the way we physically do in the present. We don’t really try to recreate our past images because, well, we don’t remember every detail, but also, that’s not how our brains function.
The notion of time —its cause and effect and its fluidity— is a character in and of itself in the film. For stories that span years, it’s common to start in the past and slowly progress to the present. But Castro built the narrative in a non-linear fashion that it’s sometimes hard to decipher if we’re in the past looking into the future, or in the present looking back in time. It’s a complete mind fuck at first, but extremely invigorating when you realize the elasticity of narrative storytelling and the ellusive existence of time and its gripping nature on you, life.
A striking similarity both leads share is that they live in transient worlds. Ocho is from Argentina, resides in New York City, but is visiting Barcelona. Javi is a Barcelona native, resides in Berlin, but is visiting Barcelona. They don’t seem to have roots in any one place, especially Ocho. You can say the existential heart of the film is both trying to find roots, in someplace or with someone. Interestingly enough the moment Ocho seems most at ease and most comfortable is when he’s in conversation with Javi. Could they be each other’s source of stability and means to be grounded? Is it their love for each other? The film doesn’t give direct answers, it’s up to the viewer to determine, and that’s the magic of it all.
Barberini and Pujol interpret their younger selves with a committed and credible effort. Going back in time becomes a source of understanding the present of each character, sort of a “how did we get here?” scenario. We witness a coy, if not detached, Ocho with strangers, but cozy and tender Ocho with those he knows. In contrast, Javi shows a consistent version of himself to friends and strangers alike.
In the flashbacks, we see how anxiety and dread takes over Ocho, presumably because he’s still closeted and not allowing to explore his sexual needs. He does try, as evidenced when he is cruised at a public park and engages in full blown oral sex, which he seems to enjoy at first, but he quickly zips up and runs away after a brief moment.
Ocho gets sick, and in the absence of his friend Sonia (Mía Maestro) who’s hosting him, he’s looked after by Javi, who’s Sonia’s boyfriend at the time. This is the first time they meet. After Ocho recovers from his sickness (on his last day in Barcelona), the two men spend a whole day together. They go sightseeing, talk about their creative endeavors, drinks a bit too much, and the night reaches its boiling point in an electrifying dancing scene for the ages. Ocho leaves before Javi can wake up.
The last ten minutes of the film become even more intriguing. Castro imagines what their future as a couple would look like. He shows us what their routine would be, both domestically and sexually, and tackles it with a superb emotional intelligence.
But it’s all a simulation, imagination. A play of what-ifs and could-have-beens. What would happen if you end up with the person you had undeniable chemistry with, but only saw each other on one occasion? Was the timing all wrong? What it really not meant to be? The film examines the way people form connections and are struck by love. But most importantly, it portrays the fragility of romantic relationships, the anxiety that exists in them, and the fear that looms above, like a dark cloud waiting to envelop the soul.
Luis Luna is Latino Rebels’ arts writer and associate producer of Latino Rebels Radio. He tweets from @luarmanyc.