Though it is based on a 1973 novel by acclaimed Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa (who also ran an unsuccessful campaign for Peruvian president in 1990), "Captain Pantoja and the Special Services" feels more like a medium-budget American movie from the 1950s, starring the likes of Rock Hudson, Sandra Dee and, in the role of the heavy-lidded sexpot, maybe Gina Lollobrigida.
It's about a highly efficient and straight-as-an-arrow army captain named Pantoja (Salvador del Solar), who, due to his spotless military record and moral authority, is given the curious assignment of organizing a traveling brothel to help relieve the sexual needs of soldiers serving in the most remote regions of the Amazon jungle. (Of course, he has to keep the mission secret, even from his wife, since the bad PR could be disastrous.)
Pantoja isn't thrilled about the concept, but he is too much the good soldier to question his superiors, so he goes about organizing the best group of hookers he can find, going so far as to dress them all in matching green-and-red patriotic outfits.
At first, the captain's administrative skills help turn the steamy road show into a physical and financial success, until a new employee comes aboard: the alluring "La Columbiana," played by Angie Cepeda. Just like that, Pantoja's professional veneer begins to crack, as he finds himself falling prey to her feminine wiles.
Even the subplots of this goofy but enjoyable film (which was Peru's entry for the 1999 foreign film Oscar), are reminiscent of 1950s romantic comedies, right down to the buffoonish commanding officer (think Paul Ford), the horrified military chaplain (think Harry Guardino) and a conniving radio host named "El Cinchi" (think Akim Tamiroff) who is determined to spill the beans about Pantoja's "special services" unless he gets a sizable amount of hush money.
The ending is pleasantly predictable, with a few melodramatic twists tossed in to liven things up. But by then, we have been swept away by the wry ridiculousness of the whole endeavor.
As the end credits rolled, I found myself thinking that the story also might have made a swell 1960s musical, with Elvis as Pantoja and Ann-Margret as "La Columbiana." Talk about entertainment!
"Captain Pantoja and the Special Services"
Directed by Francesco Lombardi; written by Giovanna Pollarolo and Enrique Moncloa; based on the novel by Mario Vargas Llosa; photographed by Teo Delgado. Opens Friday at Facets Multimedia, 1517 W. Fullerton Ave.; 773-281-4114. In Spanish with English subtitles. Running time: 1:55. No MPAA rating (nudity, sexual situations).
Captain Pantoja - Salvador del Solar
La Columbiana - Angie Cepeda
Movie review, 'Captain Pantoja and the Special Services'
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