Combustible Celluloid
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With: Scarlett Johansson, Penelope Cruz, Javier Bardem, Patricia Clarkson, Kevin Dunn, Rebecca Hall, Chris Messina, Christopher Evan Welch (narrator)
Written by: Woody Allen
Directed by: Woody Allen
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for mature thematic material involving sexuality, and smoking
Running Time: 96
Date: 05/17/2008

Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Pain in Spain

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Right around the time of his break with Mia Farrow, Woody Allen began a journey down a new path. It was a journey that earned many new detractors. He had been a filmmaker that kept people happy and comfortable by doing the same thing again and again. Losing that stable, working relationship with Farrow and entering into a new one with Farrow's adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn caused an uproar. Fans could no longer see him in the same way, and his public persona -- which had been so inextricably entwined with the onscreen one -- soon became tarnished.

Starting with Husbands and Wives (his last film with Farrow), Allen began experimenting with hand-held cameras. He tried out new cinematographers, mainly from Europe and Asia, whose work he had admired in art house films. In Deconstructing Harry (1997), he began using copious foul language. From that point on his films had an angry, sour tone. Sometimes it felt as if something were repressed; his usual neurotically funny dialogue began to sound stiff and abrasive. Finally, in 2005 he left his beloved New York for the England of Match Point, and he left behind his skinny, intellectual heroines for the voluptuous, sensual Scarlett Johansson. Critics came to his side for that one, but they soon abandoned him again as his subsequent English films failed to please them once more. He was accused too many times of returning to the themes of his 1989 masterpiece Crimes and Misdemeanors.

Now, for the first time, Allen both looks ahead and settles down with his new film Vicky Cristina Barcelona. I have usually found more to admire in Allen's late-period films than many of my colleagues, so my words may not mean much here, but I believe this film is Allen's newest masterpiece, and his greatest film in at least a decade.

Johansson stars for her third time in an Allen film as the Cristina of the title. She and her best friend Vicky (Rebecca Hall) travel to Barcelona for the summer. An unseen narrator (not Allen, someone more impartial this time) informs us that the two friends agree on pretty much everything except love. Vicky is proud to be marrying sensibly, but Cristina longs for illogical passion. Vicky begins the film (deliberately?) speaking with that uptight Allen-esque dialogue, but she soon succumbs to the lure of Barcelona and begins speaking more from her heart.

What happens is this: the girls meet an interesting artist, José Antonio (Javier Bardem) who invites them for a weekend away in Oviedo to see some artwork. Cristina has already made up her mind thanks to tales of passionate violence between José Antonio and his ex-wife, the mysterious Maria Elena. But Vicky doesn't trust him. On the trip, Cristina makes herself available, but succumbs to violent tummy trouble, so José Antonio seduces Vicky instead. Later, back in Barcelona, José Antonio and Cristina become an item, and Vicky finds herself jealous and heartbroken.

The film takes a remarkable turn when José Antonio's ex tries to commit suicide and then moves in with the new couple. Embodied by the fiery Penelope Cruz, Maria Elena makes an entrance worthy of Harry Lime's and proceeds to steal the film. (Cruz deserves the first of the movie's many deserved Oscar nominations.) Even weirder, Maria Elena, José Antonio and Cristina all become lovers, in an artistic attempt to break with the conventions of society. Meanwhile, Vicky's boring, white, upper-class fiancé Doug (Chris Messina) turns up and makes her feel even guiltier and more obsessive about her dalliance. The best part about all this passion and yearning is that it's so brilliantly and brutally analyzed, both by the characters themselves and by our unseen narrator (Christopher Evan Welch).

The always-terrific Patricia Clarkson co-stars as Judy Nash, an American living in Barcelona who offers her home to the girl travelers. She's married to another loutish American, Mark (Kevin Dunn) -- who of course gets along splendidly with Vicky's fiancé (they both play golf) -- and suffers in silence. She occasionally offers her own pained experience as advice for Vicky, who understands Judy's logic but sees through it as well. Then there's José Antonio's father, a poet who refuses to learn English so as not to dilute his mother tongue; he also refuses to publish, as a kind of punishment to the world, depriving them of a beauty they'll never know.

Language continually comes into play in interesting ways. José Antonio keeps insisting that Maria Elena speak English in their house, mainly because Cristina speaks no Spanish. When pressed, Cristina admits that she studied Chinese, but Maria Elena quickly shoots her down, claiming that it's an ugly language. Life, love and art also intermingle in Vicky Cristina Barcelona; the movie's tagline is "Life is the ultimate work of art." José Antonio and Maria Elena both paint, while Cristina tries writing and photography. She complains that she has something inside that wants to come out, but she lacks the talent to express it. I wonder if Allen feels -- or has ever felt -- this same thing?

It seems as if, rather than making statements, or quotable lines, about life, Allen for the first time is asking questions and realizing that there are no definitive answers. There's a place for intellectualism, but also eroticism. There's a place for art, but also business. As vile as the Doug and Mark characters are, for example, Allen does not seem to hate them; he gives them real, three-dimensional, human concerns and thoughts. Moreover, in a lesser film, Allen would view the life-loving Spanish characters as the ones with all the answers, but in Vicky Cristina Barcelona they're just as confused as the rest of us. It's an exceptionally well-balanced screenplay. To accompany it, Allen employs a beautiful, warm, open-air look, so as not to impede any emotions that want to wander from one place to the next. His cinematographer this time is Javier Aguirresarobe, best known for The Others, Talk to Her and The Sea Inside.

With Vicky Cristina Barcelona the 72 year-old Allen comes ever closer to Ozu's territory, finding a kind of serenity in the acceptance of life's inevitable disappointments. And, like the elders in Ozu's films, he can smile as he watches the young discover new things -- and eventually make the same kind of mistakes. This is a remarkably assured and mature work for the one-time comedian, and it's a major step forward in an already revealing career.

The Weinstein Company has released another bare-bones Woody Allen DVD, probably because the filmmaker doesn't like to bother with things like commentary tracks and interviews. Nevertheless, this movie is worth seeking out. The DVD does come with trailers and optional language tracks.

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