Spirit Willing, Flesh Unsure

His eye trained on the manic collision of Catholicism and consumerism, Spanish director Pedro Almodovar has made some of the most lively, genre-bending films of the past two decades. The guru of a visual style that emphasizes bright primary colors and bold geometry, he's in love with the glittering surfaces of pop-culture Europe, especially the frenetic freedom of post-Franco Madrid. Combining a gay sensibility with an intense interest in sex, death, and the Catholic Church, his work has come across as something of a camp version of the films of Luis Bunuel.

But as Almodovar has evolved from the young tyro of 1985's What Have I Done to Deserve This? he has also developed a tolerance -- almost an affection -- for sentimentality. Melodrama and mawkishness emerge in seedling form in 1990's Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! and become full-blown in 1995's The Flower of My Secret. His most recent film, Live Flesh, courses with more of the same.

Live Flesh is saddled with a problem that's hard to wish away: It lacks both the shiny surfaces that enlivened the director's early films and the depth of character that allows us, in a traditional movie, to identify, empathize, or connect psychologically. It has moments of visual flash and humor, including a terrific Bunuel allusion, but not as many as we expect from a filmmaker of this caliber.

The film begins with a tense, anarchic scene of childbirth aboard a moving bus near Christmas, at the tail end of Franco's regime. (In a clever scene typical of Almodovar, the latter-day Mary and son become momentary celebrities on TV news.) Next we see the boy as a young man; Victor (Liberto Rabal) is phoning Elena, a rich young junkie with whom he had a fling in a restroom. When Elena (Francesca Neri) refuses to see him, Victor sneaks into her apartment and attempts to get intimate. She pulls out her gun, two plainclothes cops show up, and, after a brief standoff and scuffle, we see that one of the cops has been shot. It all moves forward conventionally enough, as if the director were coolly and confidently putting some grand design into motion.

The action flashes forward seven years, to a time when the characters have reassembled their lives. David (Javier Bardem), the cop who got shot, has gone on to become a celebrity wheelchair basketball player, leading Spain to a Special Olympics victory. He has married Elena, who's cleaned herself up; she now projects warmth and maternalism. Victor has gone to jail, where he's done his best to fly right.

Once released, Victor begins shadowing Elena -- first stumbling accidentally into her father's funeral, then volunteering at the children's shelter that she helped found. From his dingy apartment, he also begins an affair with Clara (Angela Molina), a world-weary friend of Elena.

David, though, can't forgive Victor for the shooting that left him paralyzed. "You condemned me to look down," he says in a rare moment of directness.

About 50 minutes into Live Flesh, it's still not clear where the movie is headed, and not because it's so surreal or loopy -- this is among the most conventional films Almodovar has made -- but because both the characters and the story fail to cohere. The movie winds its way to a violent conclusion without letting us know what motivates these people or their relationships.

Bardem, who had a small role in Almodovar's 1991 High Heels and who won acclaim as the lead in Manuel Gomez Pereira's 1996 Boca a Boca, has a granite jaw and a stalwart, earnest presence. He's the closest thing to old-fashioned decency in this film, but it's not enough. He rarely electrifies the screen.

We get a sense that the fates of all five central characters (the two cops, Elena, Clara, and Victor) are joined in a kind of sexual pentagon -- that their lives were changed and linked, for better and worse, by the night of the shooting. But the conceit isn't exploited imaginatively. Nor, despite a potentially poignant scene about the end of Spanish fascism, does the movie's political context reframe its action in a provocative way.

Live Flesh is not without its pleasures. Unfortunately, we've seen a lot of this done better in earlier Almodovar films: the sexy, dangerous male who sneaks into the single woman's apartment; the sudden cross-cutting to hokey television images; the high jinks built around the telephone (the director worked for Spain's national telephone company for more than a decade and has long been fascinated with the illusion of proximity the device conjures); the pills and guns; the campy score that infuses the action with irony. And we've already seen the filmmaker do roguish male outlaws and nervy, nervous women, most notably in 1988's Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.

What Almodovar's next few films will show us is whether he has simply spent all of his good ideas or if he's engaged -- as Quentin Tarantino may be -- in the awkward transition from a manic, surface-obsessed filmmaking toward something deeper and more empathetic. But with Live Flesh he sure isn't there yet.

Live Flesh.
Written and directed by Pedro Almodovar. Based on the novel Live Flesh by Ruth Rendell. Starring Javier Bardem, Francesca Neri, and Liberto Rabal.

 
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