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Viva Pedro!

By Jesse Fox Mayshark

AUGUST 31, 1998:  If anyone sums up my notions of what Spain and Spanish people are like, it's Pedro Almodovar. His films are full of hot-blooded men and women, as unstable as they are beautiful, soaked in sunshine and too much booze. And even when you think you're not going to like them, you usually do.

His latest, Live Flesh (1997, R), is a little more sober than his best-known films. Part Spanish noir, part absurdist romance, and part political allegory, it's both minimalist and amazingly complex. It only has five characters to speak of—two cops, their wives, and a young drifter—but their connections with each other become so intricate that the effect is a little dizzying. Like most good noir, the movie reverses traditional ideas of heroes and villains. It intentionally shifts sympathy from character to character so that by the end none of them seems either "good" or "bad." It's based on a book by Ruth Rendell, who seems to be the mystery writer of choice for European directors these days (Claude Chabrol's La Cérémonie is another recent example). But Almodovar turns the affecting character study into a contemplation of the lingering effects of fascist rule under Franco.

Live Flesh's main character, the naive but explosive Victor, is reminiscent of Antonio Banderas' Ricky in Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1990, NC-17). Ricky is a former mental hospital patient who stalks and then kidnaps a porno star (Victoria Abril) to make her fall in love with him. Of course, it works. Almodovar's attitude toward females is a little, um, European (women get hit a lot in his movies), and Ricky is a little too plausibly unhinged. That makes the film a bit hard to enjoy, although by the end Abril and Banderas build convincing chemistry. As for the sex—an Almodovar signature—well, it certainly earns its rating.

Almodovar's first international success came with Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988, R), a fast and funny screwball comedy about a woman who has to cope with an ex-lover, an ex-lover's ex-lover, various friends and relatives, and a group of Shiite terrorists. Carmen Maura is terrific in the lead, as the perplexed calm in an increasingly frenetic storm. Also watch for a very young Antonio Banderas.


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