Don't be put off by its lurid-sounding title; "Live Flesh" is an effortlessly articulated tragicomedy by Pedro Almodovar, a world-renowned filmmaker at the height of his powers.
Almodovar is as outrageous as ever when contemplating the folly and glory of the iron dictates of human passion as it collides with fate. But he brings to his vision ever greater breadth and depth of perception, compassion and concern for the possibilities of redemption. The beautifully crafted "Live Flesh" continues the new mature cycle in Almodovar's work that began two years ago with "The Flower of My Secret."
Simply setting the plot of "Live Flesh" in motion is a dazzling display of filmmaking assurance. After a prologue, in which one of the key figures, Victor, is born on a Madrid bus in 1970, we flash to 1990. The handsome Victor (Liberto Rabal--Antonio Banderas, move over) is attempting to reconnect with the frizzy-haired blond Elena (Francesca Neri), who has just relieved him of his virginity. Unfortunately for Victor, he is the last person Elena, the tempestuous daughter of a rich Italian diplomat, wants to see at just this moment.
She in fact is strung out and waiting for a fix from her tardy drug dealer. But when Victor gains entry to her luxurious Madrid apartment and a tussle between him and the furious Elena is witnessed through a window, a pair of cops turn up.
They are the steady, intelligent David (Javier Bardem), a virile 30-ish man, and the drunken, middle-aged, hotheaded Sancho (Jose Sancho). Guns go off in a standoff so deftly staged that in this moment of mayhem even all four of the participants may not know what really happened.
Flash to 1996, and the lives of all four, plus Clara (Angela Molina), the elegant but abused wife of the insanely jealous Sancho, once again become entangled. A convoluted and volatile contemporary "La Ronde" has just been set in motion, accompanied by Alberto Iglesias' marvelously seductive and varied score.
The confidence Almodovar gives his actors must be awesome, for the risks and emotional range he elicits from them is typically breathtaking. "Live Flesh" helps consolidate Bardem's position as Spain's leading male star of his generation; Molina, the last of Luis Bun~uel's memorable discoveries, is harrowing as a woman who grasps at an unexpected chance for love, and Rabal, grandson of one of Bun~uel's greatest stars, Francisco Rabal, is a newcomer of major promise. Neri and Sancho are equally fine, and Bardem's mother, the wonderful character actress Pilar Bardem, appears in the prologue as a tough, brassy but kindly madam.
Almodovar has Bun~uel's "The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz" (1955) airing on Elena's TV set at the time of the gunplay. By now Almodovar is more than worthy of making such a homage to the great Spanish iconoclast, not just for their similarly detached amusement at human behavior but also for Bun~uel's determined stand for freedom of expression.
In its epilogue "Live Flesh" comes full circle as a narrative--and at the same time celebrates Spain's journey from the repression of Franco to the country's open society of today.
* MPAA rating: R, for strong sexuality, language and some drug content. Times guidelines: The film has considerable sex, strong language and has complex adult themes and plot.
Javier Bardem: David
Francesca Neri: Elena
Liberto Rabal: Victor
Angela Molina: Clara
Jose Sancho: Sancho
A Goldwyn Films release of an El Deseo presentation of a co-production of El Deseo CIBY 2000/France 3. Director Pedro Almodovar. Executive producer Agustin Almodovar. Screenplay by Pedro Almodovar in collaboration with Ray Loriga and Jorge Guerricaechevarria; based on the novel by Ruth Rendell. Cinematographer Alfonso Beato. Editor Jose Salcedo. Costumes Jose M. De Cossio. Music Alberto Iglesias. Art director Antxon Gomez. In Spanish, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes.
* Exclusively at the Royal, 11523 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 477-5581.