(director/writer: Pedro Almodovar; screenwriters: Ray Loriga/Jorge Guerricaechevarria; cinematographer: Affonso Beato; editor: Jose Salcedo; cast: Liberto Rabal (Victor), Francesca Neri (Elena), Javier Bardem (David), Jose Sancho (Sancho), Angela Molina (Clara), Penelope Cruz (Isabel); Runtime: 101;Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer; 1997- Spain)
“This film is one of Almodovar’s more resolute efforts.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

There’s a politically oppressive climate in the Madrid of the 1970s, with the dictator Franco in power. A woman gives birth on a city bus during Christmas time and the city honors her and her new born son, Victor (Liberto), with a lifetime bus pass. Victor’s mom supports her son by being a prostitute.

The film flashes to 20 years later and we see Victor, and he’s a social misfit. He’s angry and disappointed that the beautiful, druggie, Elena (Neri), the one he made love to (for him it was the first time he ever made love) in a public toilet a week ago, has broken her date with him because she thinks he is a jerk and a lousy lay. A disastrous evening follows, as he tries to force his way into her apartment to get an explanation for why she has rejected him. Cops are called to the scene and he ends up shooting and paralyzing one of the cops, David (Bardem). That is the cop Elena is immediately smitten with upon seeing him enter the room. The other cop, Sancho (Sancho), goads Victor unnecessarily into trying to wrestle the gun out of his hand and the gun goes off hitting David, causing the injury. Sancho is tense because he suspects his wife of cheating on him, and he takes out his jealous hatred on the unfortunate Victor. So goes a story filled with coincidences, frame-ups, despair, psychological traumas, political digressions, lies, revenge, biblical allusions, redemption, and marriage-go-rounds.

Victor is released from prison after serving 6-years, a time he spent bulking-up, reading the Bible, learning Bulgarian (that’s a funny one!), and swearing he would learn how to make love to a woman.

Victor, upon his release from prison, immediately makes contact with and starts an affair with Sancho’s wife (Angela). Her husband is the cop who caused his arrest.

Victor also finds that Elena is married to the paralysed cop, David, who is now a star basketball player on Spain’s Special Olympic team. Elena cleaned up her act and is working as a director of a school, where he finagles his way into a job there since he is so naturally good around children. His motive in returning to see Elena, is to take her to bed and show her how he has become a good lay and to show her what she is missing by not being with him. The only problem with his strategy, is that she is not happy to see him.

There are too many coincidences for me to be wholly convinced that I am not being manipulated into accepting a story with a certain political agenda, but there are so many wonderful gripping and beautifully done scenes that I found I was taken in by the relationships going on and curious about what would happen to these folks. I’m glad that Almodovar (Dark Habits, High Heels, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown) has chosen to make a film this time that has a story that makes some sense. I found most of his other films to be sexually bizarre, with storylines that were not particularly lucid.

Clara is only a minor figure in this story, nevertheless her story is the one that moved me the most. Her failed marriage and her need to be loved and love someone, showed how hurt she was psychologically. She was much like Victor.

The strength was in the showing of the strong erotic links to each of the main characters. Elena showed that she could change from the strung-out druggie depicted in her first encounters with Victor, into becoming a respectable wife and do-gooder. Victor could become the lover he never was and find a way to redemption for his past injustices. His story is the most challenging, and the one that is hardest to comprehend. He is symbolic of modern Spain.

Almodovar has shot a sophisticated film about characters who really develop character and who are in-tune with the times they live in. Almodovar, by his intermingling of the past and the present with the strange mixture of politics and religion that changes with the times, has created a fascinating look at Spain in the 20th century. What he shows are the diverse ingredients found in modern day Spain that makes his country so unique.

The closing optimistic scene of the politically new Madrid, the one without the ruthless dictator Franco who died of a heart attack in his bed, is opposite from the opening scene of the oppressively sullen Madrid. This film is one of Almodovar’s more resolute efforts.