Doggone it, this comedy should have worked better, ticked-over like a fine Swiss watch.
“The Little Switzerland,” an Around the World with Netflix farce from Spain, is about a mountainous Basque town long frustrated in its efforts to be recognized and governed by Basques. A solution to their identity and self-determination crisis falls in their lap when they discover they’re the burial place of legendary Swiss hero William Tell.
“The apple fellow?” Si. The apple fellow.
It’s no longer “We are NOT Spain,” it’s “We are NOT Basque,” and “Damned if we aren’t SWISS.” We’re set up for a culture clash comedy among the national identity obssed/proud — sometimes violently so — Basques swallowing that pride to take up yodeling. Tell me that’s not hilarious, at least on its surface.
But five credited screenwriters throw one monkey wrench after another into a lean and comically promising narrative — subplots about a love triangle, a spy, competing “identity” agendas, dogmatic efforts at sabotage, ETA (the Basque version of the IRA) bombs and a gun smuggling priest. The picture grinds its gears, time and again, losing what’s “funny” in favor of all sorts of distractions, all of them humdrum when compared to the Big Idea that this is supposed to be built around.
The TV reporters have shown up in tiny Telleria for what they expect will be a real celebration. The town will finally be recognized as Basque and “NOT Castilian.” The mayor (Ramón Barea) is swelling with pride. Representatives from Madrid and the autonomous Basque capital of Vitoria-Gasteiz have negotiated, the Basque president is due to speak.
Only he doesn’t. The two government entities made a backroom “deal.” The always-ignored village, in dire need of a new high school, a snow plow and repairs to its ancient cathedral, got screwed-over again.
But at that same moment two grad students in archeology, Yolanda and Gorka (Maggie Civantos, Jon Plazaola) show up. They’re here to do a little work in that academically picked-over church, which dates from Romanesque times. Clumsy Yolanda crashes through the floor into an ancient crypt. Clumsier Gorka and the priest (Secun de la Rosa) join her and there it is, inscribed in Latin on the burial chamber.
This “city of Tell” that they live in? It was named for “the apple fellow.” It must have been Swiss, a canton of the Helvetica Confederation . They should be calling themselves Swiss and their town “Tellstadt.”
A legation goes to Switzerland, shedding their traditional Basque txapela cap for Tyrolean. “You don’t speak our languages, you don’t share our customs, you are not Swiss,” they are told. Not that they hear this.
“I speak a little Swiss — Nestle, Rolex…RIiiiicola!”
Next thing we know, Telleria is thrown into a tizzy of a makeover — from flags and outfits to wines and changing the size of their beer steins. They even do an online promotional music video. Spaniards aren’t natural yodelers, and apparently, neither are the Basques.
All of this stuff leads to in-town in-fighting, lots of swearing and “We won’t stand for this” (in Spanish and Basque, or dubbed English) by the pro-Spain and pro-Basque factions.
The foul-mouthed priest figures he needs to unload the cache of machine guns hidden in his church before the ever-neutral/hide-your-money-from-the-taxman Swiss take over.
All of that stuff is funny, or on the cusp of it. The love triangle involving Gorka, who is the mayor’s son BTW, and his old love Nathalie (Ingrid García Jonsson) and new “work partner” Yolanda, isn’t.
The faintly-menacing priest and aged locals who have a lot of experience building bombs and setting guard shacks on fire — the guards are now in ornamental, Papal “Swiss Guard” uniforms — give the picture an edge. They’re making Irish comedies poking fun at the IRA. Why not mock ETA and the whole Basque identity thing?
But every time we get a hint of just what the very particular Spanish Basque must do to “adapt our cuisine” and “adjust our schedules” (no siestas, for starters) and how irked they are about it, the picture wanders off subject into a romance that is so clumsily set up and under-motivated that we never invest in it.
It’s no fault of the cast, who are — younger and older — game and able to wring at least a grin out of a few scenes that might have otherwise fallen flat without their efforts.
Show us more outrage over the loss of tapas, jamon and rioja wines! Fight about the headwear, the rich culture that gave the world Picasso and Cervantes forced to embrace the simple chocolatier cuckoo-clock making-bankers!
“The Little Switzerland” could have been a new “Mouse that Roared,” “Coca Cola Kid” or “Local Hero.” What this culture clash comedy isn’t is a lot more promising than what it is.
Rating: TV-MA, lots and lots of profanity, implied violence
Cast: Maggie Civantos, Jon Plazaola, Ingrid García Jonsson, Secun de la Rosa, Kandido Uranga, Enrique Villén and Ramón Barea
Credits: Directed by Kepa Sojo, scripted by Kepa Sojo, Sonia Pacios, Jelen Morales, Daniel Monedero and Alberto López. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:26