When it made the rounds of the gay and lesbian film festivals last year, Km. 0 (Kilometer Zero) found itself the winner of several audience awards — prizes voted on by festivalgoers themselves for the feature they happened to enjoy the most. Now going into wide release this summer, the Spanish comedy couldn't arrive at a better time. For not only has the cultural atmosphere become more “gay-friendly,” but a “people-friendly” movie — which this gay-straight ensemble piece most certainly is — is also a welcome relief from a season chockablock with silly sequels, brain-numbing CGI visual effects, and an overall attitude that the only thing worth filming is something that's blowing up.
Written and directed by Juan Luis Iborra and Yolanda García Serrano, Km. 0 takes its name from a popular meeting place in Madrid's central Puerta del Sol area. It's an attractive, none-too-crowded plaza with small shops and restaurants of the sort every city hopes to feature. But as the filmmakers show, what makes any city special are the people who live in it, and the ones who come and go herein are a nicely mixed assortment whose lives crisscross in a style that suggests a three-way collaboration among Robert Altman (the ensemble-cast dynamic), Pedro Almodóvar (the freewheeling sexuality), and Jacques Demy (some rather stunning, and very amusing, coincidences amidst the principal characters). What holds it all together is a refusal to regard gay lives as any less deserving of respect as straight ones — and the movie, in fact, features more of the latter than the former — bolstered by a disinclination to regard sexual pleasure as degrading in any way, even when the parties involved are prostitutes (of both sexes). If there's any difference between the picture's characters that stands out, it's the dreamy bemusement of the men and the hard-edged practicality of the women.
When Marga (Concha Velasco), a bored, well-to-do, middle-aged but still strikingly lovely housewife, is shown calling up a male “escort service” for a bit of afternoon delight, the directors refuse to make her a figure of fun, even as she comes to suspect that her trysting partner may be her long-lost son. Likewise Tatiana (Elisa Matilla), a tougher-than-nails, easily enraged hooker, isn't treated as a neo-realist cliché, but rather as an opportunity for romantic invention. “I'm not your Pretty Woman,” she snarls to a young would-be filmmaker (Carlos Fuentes), after he's taken advantage of her services only to give her advice on how to dress and act to better her lot. And indeed she isn't, any more than Silvia (Merce Pons) is a typical ambitious actress; it isn't every aspiring starlet who'd go so far as to throw herself in front of a moving car driven by an important theater director (Georges Corraface) to score an audition.
Alongside such high-intensity histrionics, the film's gay characters appear relatively becalmed. When Benjamin (Miguel García) scores a date via the Internet with Bruno (Victor Ullate Jr.), it looks like a typical gay male dalliance. But when a suddenly smitten Benjamin decides he wants to turn casual sex into a real relationship, the movie smoothly shifts gears toward tenderness. Likewise the plight of virginal, button-down businessman Sergio (Alberto San Juan), who, while claiming to be engaged, may not have come to grips with his true sexual orientation. In a typical American picture — even a “sophisticated” comedy — he'd merely be a fool. Here he's like everyone else: a little lost, a little sad, and a lot hopeful about finding his place in the world. What makes his dilemma compelling is the rejection of the idea of sexual desire as a lesser form of human interaction.
It's this same reluctance to judge that allows Km. 0 to move from raucous comedy to bittersweet romance — often within the same scene — and to provide enough dramatic wiggle room for a musical number, featuring “Maybe This Time” (a song I never thought I'd care to listen to again, even in Spanish). But that's what separates good films from bad. And that's what makes Km. 0 stand out in a summer filled with time-wasters as a movie very much worth one's attention.