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Plot: eclectic group of urbanites is locked into a studio during a TV gala.

Álex de la Iglesia has never released a truly bad film. While there are peaks and valleys in his filmography de la Iglesia is a master technician who knows exactly what he’s doing. What has become clear over the past couple of years is that Blanca Suárez is his new muse, and has rekindled his creativity. Not that everything that de la Iglesia commits to celluloid is an instant (or guaranteed) hit at the box office. Mi Gran Noche (My Big Night internationally) takes its title from the 1967 hit single and 2013 triple CD+DVD compilation Mi Gran Noche (50 Éxitos De Mi Vida) from headlining star Raphael and is a celebration of his impressive life and career (albeit infused with a bit of fiction). It was presented at the 2015 San Sebastián Film Festival but neither was apparently enough to get the necessary draw at the cineplexes. Which is perplexing because with a few minor cuts this is the stuff that usually does well on the Asian and Indian markets.

After his Hollywood bid The Oxford Murders (2008) failed to establish him in the English-speaking world and the gothic horror throwback Witching and Bitching (2013) didn’t do much to catapult Spanish horror back into the mainstream Álex de la Iglesia returned to his old stomping grounds of the comedy. Since the limited series Plutón B.R.B. Nero (2008-2009) de la Iglesia has surrounded himself with an assembly of new talent, both young and old, while alternating between drama, comedy, and the occassional horror. As Luck Would Have It (2011) and Perfect Strangers (2017), the 2016 Italian original was inscribed in the Guinness Book of World Records for being adapted no less than 18 (!!) times, as of this writing, across the world in countries including but not limited to Turkey, Mexico, South Korea, France, Hungary, Armenia, Greece, Vietnam, China, and Russia. A rebel at heart Álex de la Iglesia is at his best when he can lay fire at the establishment and its institutions. Filmed from late February until mid-April 2015 on an estimated budget of 4 million euro (and recouping 2,6 million of that at the box office) My Big Night sees Álex de la Iglesia satirizing celebrity culture, tabloid journalism, as well as the plasticity and manufactured nature of populist entertainment. To be more specific, it offers a damning critique of how heavily-scripted televised entertainment is a product, a medium to convey, confirm and perpetuate a certain narrative, agenda, or ideology. In other words, this is a black comedy harkening to the days of Common Wealth (2000).

Blanca Suárez follows in the footsteps of Maria Grazia Cucinotta and Macarena Gómez and is, for all intents and purposes, de la Iglesia’s latest muse. It’s easy to see why too. Suárez looks absolutely ravishing and with appearances in Pedro Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In (2011), as well as the Platino Award-winning series Cable Girls (2017-2020) and Jaguar (2021-) she could very well be on the verge of an international breakthrough. No wonder then that he would cast her again in The Bar (2017) just two years later. Ana Polvorosa, Mario Casas, and Hugo Silva all were in Sex, Party and Lies (2009) and Polvorosa would go on to star alongside Suárez in Cable Girls (2017-2020). Enrique Villén, Carmen Machi and Carmen Ruiz have been with him for over a decade by this point. Compared to them Mario Casas, Pepón Nieto and Jaime Ordóñez are relatively new additions. The prerequiste monument here is Terele Pávez. Pávez first drew attention some 56 years prior with the romantic comedy We Are Eighteen Years Old (1959). This wouldn’t be all that special or noteworthy under any of the usual circumstances, except that it was the debut of none other than infamous enfant terrible and future prolific one-man exploitation factory Jesús Franco. Pávez has been with de la Iglesia since his breakthrough with The Day of the Beast (1995) and the wonderful Common Wealth (2000) as has Santiago Segura – and it’s great to see him be so respectful as to always write a role or two with them in mind. Pávez would pass away in 2017, aged 78, after an impressive six-and-a-half decade career. Also present are producer Carolina Bang and crooner Raphael as a fictionalized version of himself.

October, 2015. At the studios of Mediafrost TV it’s all hands on deck for crew and technicians as filming for the 2016 New Year’s Eve gala drags on into its second week. When an unfortunate on-set accident kills one of the extras the ETT summons chronically unemployed José Díaz Martiño (Pepón Nieto) at the last minute to the industrial pavilion on the outskirts of Madrid where the gala is being recorded. There he’s hurried to table 21 by stage manager Paco (Luis Callejo) and seated with seasoned extras Yanire (Ana Polvorosa), her boyfriend Josua (Luis Fernández), and playboy Antonio (Antonio Velázquez). While exchanging the usual formalities who catches his eye is beautiful Paloma (Blanca Suárez), an affluent socialite everybody believes is jinxed. José is supposed to watch his retired and superstitious septuagenarian mother Dolores Martiño Sepúlveda (Terele Pávez) as his high-strung sister María (Toni Acosta) is on the way to Disneyland in Paris, France for a vacation with her kids. Complications arise when Dolores torches his sister’s apartment and a municipal police officer (Daniel Guzmán) drops her off at the studio. At another tabe sits grifter Soriano (Enrique Villén) and he's in cahoots with Romanian thug Luca (Filip Bulgary) to pull off a daring extortion racket on one of the show’s young stars. Meanwhile outside angry demonstrators violently protest the studio’s recent management decisions.

Behind the scenes things aren’t much better. Producer José Luis Benítez Quintana (Santiago Segura) has to keep things moving according to plan and constantly deal with everybody’s fragile egoes. Hanging as a sword of Damocles above him is the imminent termination of 500 employees to keep the channel profitable. Hosts Roberto (Hugo Silva) and Cristina (Carolina Bang) are married and when they’re not at each other’s throat (sometimes literally) they’re actively sabotaging each other’s career. Caught in the middle of the domestic dispute is their writer (Ignatius Farray). Aging crooner Alphonso (Raphael) has stipulated that he will only perform as the headliner. Alphonso’s embattled Russian personal assistant, publicist, and attorney Yuri (Carlos Areces) has had enough of the decades of thankless abuse and plans to get even with his employer. For that purpose he has hired Óscar García (Jaime Ordóñez) who will kill Alphonso during the show’s climactic finale. What he doesn’t know is that Óscar García (is de la Iglesia a vintage Terrorizer fan?) an Alphonso superfan. Standing in the shadow of Alphonso is blonde chiseled Latin music star Adanne (Mario Casas). The beefcake heartthrob is the victim of groupies Lourdes (Marta Castellote) and Sofía (Marta Guerras), unaware that they are recruits in Soriano’s extortion scheme. Adanne’s unscrupulous handler Perotti (Tomás Pozzi) is desperately trying to contain the situation. In the exterior production control room mobile unit master control operators and “hysterical lesbians” Rosa (Carmen Machi) and Amparo (Carmen Ruiz) try to cut the best footage from a chaotic production while dealing with personal problems. As the night drags on things come to a violent head during the gala’s epic finale.

With Álex de la Iglesia growing up with the classic Iberian fantaterror and the decades worth of exploitation that his country had spawned the first thing that My Big Night flashes after the musical opening number is a pair of big bouncing naked breasts. That being out of the way you know exactly what you’re in for. About half an hour in Nieto and Suárez start comparing scars in a vignette that’s as childlishly funny as it is innocent. Well, any and all excuse is good to have Suárez showing off her thong. Here it’s that and in The Bar (2017) he and writer Jorge Guerricaechevarría invented a scene that required her to strip down to her lingerie. How we suffer for our art. When it’s not Suárez glancing seductively de la Iglesia points his camera at the Martas, Castellote and Guerras. We probably missed a ton of references, but it’s always fun to have Julio and Enrique Iglesias, horror director José Luis Merino, and Marie José Cantudo casually mentioned in passing. As with much of his post-Common Wealth (2000) repertoire there are references to Star Wars (1977) and the bit with the circular blade is the closest de la Iglesia has come to re-enacting the drillbit scene from Lucio Fulci’s City Of the Living Dead (1980). Adanne is a parody of Puerto Rican singer Chayanne and the song 'Bombero' (a riff on his 2002 hit 'Torero') more than a few times reminds of ‘Dard – E – Disco’ from the Farah Khan-Shah Rukh Khan hit romantic comedy Om Shanti Om (2008). Not only does it feature similar production design it oozes with the same garish Bollywood excess. Sadly there’s no ‘Deewangi Deewangi’ equivalent, but it’s the sentiment that counts. It sort of makes you long for de la Iglesia doing a The Dirty Picture (2011) take on Spain’s Cine-S star Andrea Albani. Not that this ever reaches the levels of self-awareness of that or, say, Om Shanti Om (2008), but as a general swipe at television and mass entertainment you could do far, far worse.

When My Big Night failed to perform as expected at the box office de la Iglesia and Jorge Guerricaechevarría almost immediately went back to the drawingboard. Was it always the plan for My Big Night to set up The Bar (2017), was one just the natural result of the other, or was the second a mere economic necessity to recoup the losses? Who knows… What is perhaps most telling is that Luis Fernández’ Josua at one point flat out states the central premise to The Bar (2017) in what otherwise would be considered a throwaway line. Either way de la Iglesia was able to retain all principal players (Suárez, Casas, Ordóñez, Machi, and Pávez) and in record time penned a screenplay that felt like a much more serious and darker take on what was done here. My Big Night and The Bar (2017) are two sides of the same coin, two interpretations of the same idea, and thus thematic companion pieces featuring the same leads. Hardly the worst idea on part of Álex de la Iglesia and writer Jorge Guerricaechevarría as a main cast this talented couldn’t possibly let go to waste that easily. Blanca Suárez certainly has reignited the fires of creativity for Álex de la Iglesia and he would be out of his mind not to utilize the prestige and marquee value she brings to a project to the fullest possible extent. Here’s hoping that the next de la Iglesia-Suárez feature is even bigger and better.

Plot: two liberated adolescent girls escape their boring small-town lives.

That To Be Twenty wasn’t going to be the average commedia sexy all’Italiana is more than obvious when it opens with “I was twenty, I won't let anyone say those are the best years of your life”, a quote from French philosopher Paul Nizan, a friend of Jean-Paul Sartre. Earlier in the decade director Fernando Di Leo had experienced trouble with authorities and government for this his Milieu Trilogy consisting of Caliber 9 (1972), The Italian Connection (1971), and The Boss (1973). Di Leo had already poked fun at the inherent absurdities of the giallo with The Beast Kills In Cold Blood (1971) and now he was looking to channel his subversive inclinations elsewhere. What better way to indulge in some devastating socio-political criticism than to dress it up as a light and fun commedia sexy all’Italiana? Who better to deliver said pointed message than the genre’s two prime Lolitas as well as veterans Vittorio Caprioli and Ray Lovelock? To Be Twenty is the summit of 1970s Italian comedy. The less you know about its most celebrated punch the better. For that reason we encourage anybody seriously interested in experiencing To Be Twenty with virgin eyes to seek out the original uncut Italian print – and to avoid the international English-language cut at any cost.

From 1964 to 1985 Di Leo directed 20 movies and wrote 43 screenplays. As many a director Fernando Di Leo got his start as a screenwriter and one of his most famous screenplays was that for the spaghetti western A Fistful Of Dollars (1964) from Sergio Leone. For the sequel For A Few Dollars More (1965) Leone promoted Di Leo to assistant director. Like so many he filmed in whatever genre was popular and profitable that decade. As such Di Leo directed spaghetti westerns, film noir, poliziotteschi, and crime/action movies. In retrospect it’s only just that Di Leo is mostly remembered for his masterpiece, the one that pulled the rug from under the otherwise futile commedia sexy all’Italiana genre so fabulously by having the exposed bodies of Guida and Carati act as vessels for biting socio-political criticism.

Better even, Di Leo likes to play with audience expectations and in To Be Twenty he used a decidedly funny running gag to deliver the movie’s most celebrated and most widely misuderstood punch. Said punch was so controversial that worried distributors quickly pulled it from theatres, and with scissors in hand butchered one of Italy’s greatest and most subversive sex comedies. In what only can be considered one of the most puzzling re-edits in Italian and international cinema history, they completely missed the point Di Leo was making. Fernando Di Leo had planned a prequel set in 1940s Italy with Gloria Guida and Lilli Carati both reprising their roles, but the out-of-nowhere surprise ending didn’t sit well with audiences and distributors alike. Thus the intended prequel never materialized. Di Leo passed away of natural causes at the age of 71 in December 2003.

Lia (Gloria Guida) and Tina (Lilli Carati) are two emancipated adolescents hitchhiking their way from the provinces to the more cosmopolitan Rome. Describing themselves as, “young, hot and pissed off” the two concubines are in search of a place that will allow them to live out their lives in complete freedom, sexual and otherwise. The two feel restricted in their traditional rural environment and seek to try their luck in the more liberated Rome. En route to the big city the two hike across town but they seem to have little luck hitching a ride until Tina throws a few seductive glances across the road. A car finally pulls up and the girls’ spirits are lifted at long last. That is until the driver (Serena Bennato) make a pass on Tina and she angrily storms off as Lia looks on. The girls decide to take their chances and wait it out. Thankfully a friendly trucker takes them in and drives them to town, a place where he was going anyway. Before getting into the truck they encounter Nazariota (Vittorio Caprioli), proprietor of a hippie commune in the city where everybody is free to do whatever they please. Their acquaintances made Lia and Tina hop into the truck and are on their way to Rome.

What are two searingly beautiful adolescent girls to do in the big city? The two play in and drink from public fountains, steal cigarettes, enter a local café and flirt their way out of having to pay for anything. They break into impromptu suggestive dance routines on the Piazza di Spagna much to the amusement of a street musician and they shoplift from a convenient store because what else do we expect two beautiful girls with no discernable life skills to do? Looks are everything. After their assorted misadventures in town the girls happen upon the commune from Nazariota. Tina is immediately smitten by strapping free-spirited layabout Rico (Ray Lovelock) while Lia is happy to enjoy the quiet that the commune offers. They are given a living quarters with Arguinas (Leopoldo Mastelloni), a seemingly mute mime, but in actuality a practitioner of transcendental meditation. To occupy their time and to support themselves at the commune the duo sell encyclopedias to dusty professors. Lia and Tina engage in lesbian histrionics to tempt Arguinas, attend a reading of Valerie Solanas's 1965 radical feminist SCUM Manifesto and eventually realize the commune is a front for prostitution and drug running. A lesbian (Licinia Lentini) tries to seduce Lia. Not much later commune member Riccetto (Vincenzo Crocitti) is revealed to be an informant and hard-nosed police inspector Zambo (Giorgio Bracardi) grills the inhabitants. At this point Tina and Lia flee the commune because it’s not nearly as free as was promised. The two then enter a trattoria where they meet a man (Carmelo Reale, as Roberto Reale) and his gang. One last flirt couldn’t possibly hurt, right? What harm would anybody possibly inflict on two searingly beautiful adolescent girls?

The stars of To Be Twenty are the two prime Lolitas of lowbrow commedia sexy all’Italiana: Gloria Guida and Lilli Carati. Gloria Guida was Miss Teen Italy 1974 and the star of Mario Imperoli’s Monika (1974) and Blue Jeans (1975) that made her shapely derrière a legend in its own right. As a nod to her most famous movie Guida wears a similar pair of lowcut denim. Gloria was everybody’s favorite clothing-averse schoolgirl in a trio of La Liceale (1975) movies in the mid-to-late seventies. Whether she was a naughty schoolgirl, a novice at the convent, or a young nurse – at some point Gloria always ended up losing her top and frequently more articles of clothing. Where Gloria Guida was, very naked shenanigans usually followed. Guida might not have been a Laura Antonelli but she dominated the niche that she inhabited. It’s easy to forget that glorious Gloria shared the screen with Corrado Pani, Nino Castelnuovo, Lando Buzzanca, Marco Guglielmi, Mario Carotenuto, Ennio Colaianni, and Giuseppe Pambieri. Guida married crooner and showman Johnny Dorelli in 1981 and the two have been together since. Gloria maintained a short-lived singing career next to her acting as can be heard in the title song of To Be Twenty as well as Night Nurse (1979). La Guida remains a beloved monument of Italian culture, cinema and otherwise, even to this day.

Fate wasn’t so kind to poor Lilli Carati. Carati was also a former pageant and even was crowned Miss Elegance at a beauty contest in Calabria next to being the first runner-up at Miss Italy 1975. Lovely Lilli was a star of lowbrow comedies in her own right, but her star never shone as bright nor as fierce as Guida’s. Carati appeared on the covers of Playboy (December, 1976 and September, 1978), Playmen (October, 1976) and Penthouse (December, 1982). In 1984 Lilli made her acquaintance with director Joe D’Amato through mutual friend Jenny Tamburi and before long Carati appeared in four of D’Amato’s erotic movies. Things turned to worse for lovely Lilli as by 1987 she had descended into hardcore pornography and worked with performer Rocco Siffredi on a number of occasions. In the 1980s Carati would lose herself in addiction to alcohol, heroin, and cocaine. After two suicide attempts and an arrest for possession Lilli underwent therapy for three years in the Saman community of anti-authoritarian sociologist, journalist, political activist, and sometime guru Mauro Rostagno – famously murdered by the Costa Nostra - where she was the subject of the documentary Lilli, una vita da eroina (or Lilli, A Life of Heroin) by Rony Daopoulos. In 2014, at age 58, disgraced and forgotten, she passed away from a brain tumour.

To say that To Be Twenty is brazenly irreverent and subtextually rich would be an understatement if there ever was one. What Top Sensation (1969) from Ottavio Alessi was to the giallo, To Be Twenty was to the a light-hearted commedia sexy all’Italiana. 1970s Italy was a target-rich environment and Di Leo aims at everything from Italian machismo culture, provincial attitudes towards sexuality, gender roles, and youth counterculture to police corruption, the class divide, and the futility of the hippie Love Generation. It mocks self-important males in roles of authority (store detectives, police inspectors), the generation gap and the bourgeoisie. It has a biting contempt for everything and everyone, and anything is a potential target for critique. In the feature’s biggest running joke Lia and Tina throw themselves at each and every man (and who in their right mind would rebuke Gloria Guida and Lilli Carati in 1978?) they encounter yet are rejected again and again. Glorious Gloria had done her fair part of melodrama at this point – but she never, either before or after, was given a script this impressive. Forget the flights of fancy from The Minor (1974), forget the wicked mischief of That Malicious Age (1975) or the tragedy of Sins Of Youth (1975). This might start out like a variation on either Blue Jeans (1975) or La Liceale (1975) – but this is something else. This one is seething with disdain and overflowing with contempt – and any and everybody is fair game.

Nobody’s going to contest that Gloria Guida’s tour of duty through Italian comedy yielded any bona fide classics, one or two exceptions notwithstanding. Both Guida and Carati excelled in playing sexually promiscuous airheaded bimbos, and they did so with great relish and gusto. By 1978 every possible permutation and sexual kink of the commedia sexy all’Italiana had been thoroughly exhausted. To drag the genre kicking and screaming into the next decade somebody had to upset the status-quo and defy expectations in a major way. Fernando Di Leo heeded that call. Gloria Guida and Lilli Carati both were the Lolitas of the lower end of the spectrum and To Be Twenty follows all of the usual conventions wonderfully to create a false sense of security. Everything looks like pretty standard fare you’d expect from these belles except that Di Leo’s screenplay is far darker and more cynical around every turn. Vittorio Caprioli and Licinia Lentini play the kind of characters expected of them. It’s all very tongue-in-cheek and the jokes come flying early and often. It’s not until the very end until To Be Twenty reveals its true motives and lasting power. It’s unfortunate that neither Guida nor the late Carati ever had the chance to partake in another sardonic and deconstructionist genre exercise like this again. Di Leo knew their strengths and played up to them. To make a long story short, To Be Twenty is among the best 70s commedia sexy all’Italiana has to offer. The only caveat is that this is only true for the original uncut Italian print – and not the international English-language version chopped together by panicky distributors.