Almost no one thinks the un-rated Sex and Lucia, Spanish director Julio Medem's latest award-winning art film, is pornographic or prurient, gratuitous or offensive. Sure, it's sexually explicit, but despite its title, it's no Debbie Does Dallas or Inside Marilyn Chambers.

In fact, it lacks the women-as-sex-objects cynicism of The Fast and the Furious, say, or the leering voyeurism of Blue Crush. Yet Blue Crush and its Hollywood brethren are considered utterly mainstream and conventional. Moviegoers flock to such films in countless millions, drawn by ads splashed across the pages of daily newspapers, and no one thinks twice.

Sex and Lucia, on the other hand, has not received the same promotion, at least here in Seattle. Invoking the specter of censorship, on August 12 the Seattle Times/Seattle Post-Intelligencer's advertising department abruptly decided to refuse ads for the movie, which opened locally four days later at the Harvard Exit (the two papers share sales functions).

"I don't know that you could find a single review that said this movie was prurient or salacious," contends Ray Price, vice president of Landmark Theatres, which owns the Exit. "I can think of innumerable Hollywood R-rated films where the women are rendered essentially as prostitutes, yet that's okay. I find it all very perplexing."

As the only major newspapers to turn away the film's ads--Sex and Lucia is playing without controversy in 13 other cities, including Portland and ostensibly more conservative locales, such as San Antonio--the two dailies have roiled the city's burgeoning art-film audience.

A Times spokeswoman says simply that the movie "did not fit [the Times'] guidelines for adult entertainment," pointing to the fact that it is un-rated, with no one under 18 allowed, though she admits that the papers do accept advertising from some other un-rated movies. Even so, "We are not passing judgment on the film itself," she adds.

Times reviewer Moira Macdonald had already passed such judgment, calling the movie an "intriguing romantic fantasy" and a "gorgeously shot, twisty circle of a film" during the Times-sponsored SIFF.

Given such editorial support, the ad decision shocked the flick's distributors. "We thought we might have problems with this film, but the one city we didn't worry about was Seattle," says Palm Pictures' Bonnie Voland. The movie packed houses at SIFF, where audiences voted Best Director and Best Screenplay prizes for the film, and judges bestowed "Emerging Master" and a Golden Space Needle Award on Medem. Voland admits Sex and Lucia contains sexually explicit material, but stresses such scenes are integrated into "a very adult, intelligent film" (for The Stranger's capsule review, see page 73).

Marla Halperin of Magic Lamp Distributing, which handles advertising for Palm Pictures, also defends the movie. "We've received great reviews all over the country," she says. "It's a beautiful film with a great story."

Her research shows that while the Times and P-I have refused other film advertising in the past--Romance and L.I.E. come to mind--they have accepted ads for other un-rated movies, like the sexually explicit Y Tu Mamá También.

That bothers Price. "It's very hard to anticipate when and why they're going to take this sort of position," he says of the Times/ P-I action. "I don't really understand their criteria at all."

As for local film voices, both papers have run reviews of the film in spite of the ad blackout. P-I critic Sean Axmaker, who gave the picture a "B," declines to discuss the controversy beyond emphasizing that his review (and an interview with Medem) appeared "uncensored and without any pressure to skew my coverage."

Times critic Moira Macdonald, who authored the laudatory Times SIFF capsule, is more forthcoming. "I would have made a different decision," she admits in reference to the ban. "The film does have nudity and sexual content," she continues, "but it's presented responsibly." The Times also ran John Hartl's fuller, more scathing critique--"Sex and Lucia fails to satisfy"--the day the film opened.

While the Seattle dailies avoided mention of the brouhaha until the Times ran several letters on August 19, the papers' decision has drawn substantial outside media attention, including an August 15 BBC report entitled "Seattle bans sexy 'film' adverts."