I feel like I start many of my posts by saying, “I don’t generally care for…” Well, I generally don’t care for Woody Allen’s films, at least those from the mid-80s on. Though I should admit that I was once a huge lover of his work from the 70s, particularly Manhattan. That film has such lush and powerful images of New York that the city itself is basically a protagonist in the film. The same is true for Barcelona in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, which is easily the best Woody Allen film I’ve seen in years. I enjoyed it so much that I now regret not having seen it on the big screen when it was first released.
On the face of it, the film is about two young American women spending a summer in Cataluña before getting married (in the case of one) or getting on with figuring out what to do next in life (in the case of the other). The women, the eponymous Vicky and Cristina, meet a fiery Spanish painter (Javier Bardem) who tries to romance and seduce them with a trip to Olviedo. All the while, a wonderful Spanish soundtrack plays in the background and the golden lighting of Spain’s sunshine emits the country’s warmth to the viewer.
While the film is categorized as a romantic comedy, I found the work mostly about passion and art. And I can’t believe I just wrote that because normally such a sentence would make me groan. Vicky (Rebecca Hall) is practical, yet she’s obsessed with the energy and serendipity of Cataluña. Juan Antonio (Bardem’s painter) is the embodiment of such qualities for her, and she finds her passionate attraction to him disquieting and confusing. Cristina (Scarlett Johansson), on the other hand, already lives on the fly. She actually finds the stability of a romance, albeit a three-way one, to be an enticing forbidden fruit. Meanwhile, she also finds new expression in photography. But her Achilles’ heel of dissatisfaction always looms on the horizon. And then there’s Juan Antonio’s ex-wife Maria Elena (Penélope Cruz) who is nothing but passion and artistic expression. In the past, she tried to kill Juan Antonio because of her intense feelings. Now she steps back into his life when he’s in the middle of a new romance. Cruz’ facial expressions in the film are worth a thousand Oscars alone. And have fun practicing your Spanish skills while listening to her mostly improvised dialog with Bardem.
The film also rekindled my appreciation for Allen’s humor. In particular, I keep running my favorite scene from the film over and over in my head. In it, Juan Antonio explains the philosophy of his father Julio Josep (Josep Maria Domènech) to Vicky. Julio Josep is a crusty Spanish poet who refuses to publish his work because he hates the world. By withholding such beautiful words from people, he’s punishing this place that he hates. I had no idea that poets had such power!