November 26, 1993
A Home That Was Far From Sweet


To judge from "El Pisito" ("The Little Apartment"), an excessively noisy, dark comedy directed by the Spanish film maker Marco Ferreri, New York City's real estate squeeze in the 1980's was nothing compared with Madrid's in the 1950's. In the movie's vision of real estate hell, middle-class people who can't afford modern housing -- and that seems to be almost everyone -- often live eight to an apartment in a space that is more appropriate for two. Because of overcrowding, thin ceilings and frequently raised voices, apartment living often borders on bedlam.

Rodolfo (Jose Luis Lopez Vazquez), a novelty-store clerk, is a typical victim of the squeeze. Along with several others, he leases a room in the four-room apartment of Dona Martina (Concha Lopez Silva), a crotchety woman in her 80's who is dying.

Until he can afford his own place, Rodolfo cannot marry Petrita (Mary Carrillo), his increasingly embittered fiancee of 12 years. So desperate has the situation grown that Petrita persuades her meek boyfriend to propose to Dona Martina. If he marries her, he can inherit the apartment at its current affordable rent. When Rodolfo balks, Petrita takes matters into her own hands and forces the arrangement.

But marriage agrees with Dona Martina, who dotes on her new husband in the same way she dotes on her cat. To everyone's dismay, she lingers on for more than two years.

Although its style borders on farce, the underlying tone of "El Pisito," which opens today at the Joseph Papp Public Theater as part of its Spanish Eyes series, is unsparingly harsh and often jarringly loud. In the screenplay by Mr. Ferreri and Rafael Azcona, Dona Martina is routinely referred to as "the old hag." Rodolfo is a weakling who drinks too much wine and is easily bullied by Petrita, whom he tells his friends he doesn't care for her anymore.

Petrita, who sees her life and her dreams slipping away, is alternately pitiful and monstrous. After initially being dismissed by Dona Martina as a hussy, she cannily wins over the old woman and drives a hard financial bargain. In one of the movie's nastiest scenes, she inspects the apartment as though it were already hers and spits out her contempt at how ugly and dirty it is. Miss Carrillo's performance -- the best in the movie -- is as bluntly hard-edged as her formidable character.

As the movie makes abundantly clear, the years of waiting and frustration have so curdled the relationship between Rodolfo and Petrita that any chances of their finding happiness have vanished long ago. Their home sweet home promises to be a miserable battleground. El Pisito Directed by Marco Ferreri; written by Rafael Azcona and Mr. Ferreri; director of photography, Francisco Sempere; edited by Jose Antonio Rojo; music by Federico Contreras; sets by Jose Aldudo. At the Joseph Papp Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, East Village. Running time: 95 minutes. This film is not rated. Petrita . . . Mary Carrillo Rodolfo . . . Jose Luis Lopez Vazquez Dimas . . . Jose Cordero Dona Martina . . . Concha Lopez Silva