March 8th, 2007
Directed by Pedro Almodóvar, in Spanish with English subtitles. Starring Penelope Cruz as Raimunda.
I’ve watched this twice now. I like it less after seeing it for the second time. The first time around I was dazzled by the windmills of La Mancha, where everyone is crazy;
by Penelope Cruz’s cleavage, which plays a leading role;
and by a lot of the dialogue, which is smart and raunchy. “I’m at a difficult age,” says Raimunda’s teenage daughter Paula. “You’re not the only one,” says Paula’s aunt Soledad.
“It smells of farts!” sniffs Raimunda.
Well, those things aren’t so bad. It’s not that I don’t think you should see this movie. Cruz is really very good here, coming into her own as a European grande dame in the manner of Sophia Loren or Anna Magnani (who actually appears in a movie on tv within the movie, in Italian with Spanish subs). Cruz plays the role at full strut, all bright red lipstick, high heels, and upswept hairdo.
But the plot is loopy, full of loose ends. There is a murder, but once covered up it is forgotten; it has no consequences. Raimunda takes over her neighbour’s vacant restaurant without his knowledge, and runs it as a café; he’s a little miffed, but it’s no big deal. Raimunda is habitually cruel to everyone, including her daughter, her sister, and their loyal childhood friend Agustina, but everyone just forgives her.
Although the film is ostensibly a murder mystery and a ghost story, the theme is the camaraderie of women. Almodóvar, who is gay, provides no male characters who are not either louts, dupes, or handsome actors and musicians. They are cardboard cutouts.
All fine; recommended for the bright colours, the fun of seeing Spain (and Quixote’s La Mancha to boot), the good performances, Cruz’s acting and cleavage. But the plot is weak and frustrating, and the treatment of the male characters is shallow and clichéd. It feels like it should be a musical with big production numbers, such as the opening scene where the women of La Mancha gather to clean their own graves and (almost) burst into song. (Something like the busy animals in Cinderella.)
There is a rather awful scene where Cruz lip-synchs a soulful flamenco ballad. I was bored with this movie the second time around, but it deserves to be seen once. Or as Ebert and his sidekick might say, “One thumb up.”