Monday, February 16, 2009

Barcelona es Poderosa

The heat of Barcelona permeates through the screen in Woody Allen’s latest passion project, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, a romantic comedy with tragic undertones. But what else can you expect from Woody Allen? Love stories for him always have their sense of tragedy.

The film centers around Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson), two friends off to stay in Barcelona for the summer with some distant relatives of Vicky. Vicky is a serious and levelheaded graduate student of Catalan identity and hopes to further her research in Barcelona. Cristina, on the other hand, is looking to escape the end of her latest relationship and the dissatisfaction of another film project. The girls agree on most matters in life, except love, of course. While Vicky desires seriousness, stability, and commitment from a man, Cristina esteems the exact opposite and all-consuming passion.

Insert Spanish hottie Javier Bardem. Bardem’s character is charmingly deadlier in this film with just a look than he ever was with the cattle gun in No Country for Old Men. Bardem plays Juan Antonio, a talented artist who is perhaps best known for his steamy and tumultuous relationship with his brilliant artist ex-wife, Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz). Their marriage came to a screeching halt when one night Maria Elena stabbed Juan Antonio in a crazed rage. Juan Antonio’s insertion into the Vicky and Cristina mix creates a delicious pie of steamy lust that only becomes steamier when Maria Elena is added creating a perpetual “ménage a quatre.”

The entire story is punctuated by our omnipresent fifth character’s (Christopher Evan Welch) sarcastic narration. Not only does he provide necessary exposition allowing the story to progress, but he does it in a way that is subtly funny, increasingly ironic, and slightly neurotic. It’s as if Woody Allen himself were speaking to his audience via the narrator.

All the actors play their parts beautifully. Hall manages to make negative and stern Vicky lovable; Johansson charms the audience as Cristina; and Bardem turns the Latin lover Juan Antonio into more than just a caricature and cliché. Nonetheless, it is Cruz’s portrayal of Maria Elena, the tempestuous, jealous Latin woman, that stole the show and nabbed her that Oscar nomination. Her fiery portrayal is believable and impossibly charming. Where as anyone else would have been contemptuous, Cruz is real and sympathetic. Plus, listening to Bardem and Cruz spew Woody Allen’s neuroticism in Spanish is by far the most amusing aspect of the film.

Of course, who could forget Barcelona itself, which is as much a character than our foursome? The romanticized city brings the characters closer and watches over them, providing the audience another visual perspective. It is always, as the repeated main theme song by Guilia y los Tellarini explains, “poderosa.” The power of the city is hypnotizing.

Beware, watcher. If you are expecting a typical Woody Allen film, you shall be sorely disappointed. The quintessential neurotic-New Yorker-director/writer/artist-type character that you might be keen on seeing is devoid in this film. Woody has grown and developed away from the typical neurotic New Yorker, but not completely since we do see some hints of it. Do not fear, though, there are some of Woody’s other favorite maladjustments: jealousy, cowardice, and infidelity.

Woody Allen is easily one of Hollywood’s most underrated directors. He has brought us so many Hollywood and cult classics (Hello Annie Hall, Manhattan, and Crimes and Misdemeanors) that you’d think it’d be impossible to be this prolific and talented. With Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Woody Allen’s cherry on top of a huge mound of ice cream film, you’ll want to jump right into this tragically comedic story for some Spanish guitar and wine.

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