At first, Lucio Castro’s “End of the Century” seems deceptively simple. Boy meets boy, boy hooks up with boy, boy says goodbye to boy the next morning.
But then the first-time writer-director starts playing with time, presenting alternative ways that the film’s two lovers could have met. Or maybe that original hookup wasn’t real? As we try and sort out truth from fantasy, “End of the Century” becomes an invigorating and poignant film about paths not taken, and how the choices we make end up defining who we are.
“End of the Century” has its Madison premiere at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 16, at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, 227 State St., to kick off its Spotlight Cinema series. The screening is free to museum members, $7 for all others.
Ocho (Juan Barberini) is vacationing on his own in Barcelona when he spies Javi (Ramon Pujol) on the street. The first 13 minutes of the film are dialogue-free as Ocho tries to get Javi’s attention without being too forward about it. “It’s like a chess game,” he says later, after Javi has come up to Ocho’s apartment.
The next day, the two men meet for sightseeing and wine, and their freewheeling conversation in a European city feels like an clear evocation of Richard Linklater’s “Before” trilogy. Both Barberini and Pujol are appealing actors, and Castro captures the beauty of Barcelona without turning the film into a travelogue.
Abruptly, the film goes back in time to 1999, although both Ocho and Javi look exactly the same. Ocho is now in the closet, seeking random encounters with strangers in the park and consumed with shame afterwards. He’s staying in Barcelona with an ex-girlfriend, an opera singer named Sonia (Mia Maestro) and her new boyfriend. Her boyfriend is Javi.
The two men have immediate chemistry, getting drunk and in the film’s most rapturous sequences, dancing to A Flock of Seagulls’ “Space Age Love Song” in Sonia’s apartment while she’s away.
Castro keeps things vague about whether this 1999 meeting ever happened, or if he’s presenting a different timeline, comparing the openness and frankness of their present-day encounter with the secrecy of the 1999 meeting. But then, in the film’s final half hour, Castro presents yet another version of Ocho and Javi’s relationship that rewrites what we’ve seen before.
There may be a concrete explanation to explain all this timeline-jumping, but solving “End of the Century” isn’t really the point anyway. Instead, it’s an elliptical romance that depicts how emotion can refract our memories, how an experience that lasted just a few hours can stay with us forever.