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Bad boy, great film

Pedro Almod—var does fine with half his lead characters in a coma

Leave it to Spanish bad boy Pedro Almod—var to come up with a love story about couples and comas.

Leave it to the recently mellowed and matured Almod—var to make something as moving as 'Talk to Her' from such an unlikely premise.

It's not that the mischief-maker has retired or been exorcised. He's just become less flamboyant, more stealthily romantic. Less slap and tickle, more whisper and embrace.

But it begins with crying. Travel writer Marco (Dario Grandinetti) has been moved to tears by an avant-garde dance piece, while the stranger seated next to him, Benigno (Javier Camara), has become just as touched by his neighbor's reaction.

The two men don't really meet until some time later, in a situation with even more potential for tears. Marco's bullfighter girlfriend, Lydia (Rosario Flores), has suffered a brain-damaging injury in the ring and is in what seems to be an irreversible coma. During his hospital vigil, Marco catches a glimpse of nurse Benigno caring tenderly for Alicia (Leonor Watling), a ballerina who has been comatose for months following a car accident.

Benigno remembers Marco's sensitivity at the dance performance and advises him about tending to his loved one. 'Talk to her,' Benigno says. Speech, he believes, can provide a medium for a much more profound communion. 'A woman's brain is a mystery,' he adds, 'and in this condition, even more so.'

The words exchanged by the two men lead to an unexpectedly deep friendship, as Almod—var illustrates the multifaceted beauty of intimacy with sensitivity, gentle wit and a lyrical sense of mystery. He touches on intimate relations of the physical, spiritual and even professional sort: love, friendship, family, teachers and students, people and their jobs.

Not the least of these is Almod—var's own love of movies, which doesn't inform his work in a momentary homage to a particular film or filmmaker, but as something that inhabits the movie like another character. Here he uses a silent film of his own creation, titled 'Shrinking Lover,' not just to visualize Alicia's love of silent movies, but to capsulize the moods 'Talk to Her' blends so magically and to suggest a plot development that can't be shown.

The use of this sequence reflects the grace of Almod—var's entire approach. The outrageousness that first got him noticed is still present, but in a way that serves something larger rather than threatens to become the whole thing itself. The splashiness of his farces has developed into a subtler, more seductive use of color, and his gift for finding unique physical types now works toward the exploration of character more than as an aspect of dŽcor.

Through certain revelations and plot turns involving Benigno, played with soft melancholy by Camara, Almod—var tests his characters and his viewers. And he does so in a provocative but compassionate way that truly displays how the bad boy's kinks have smoothed into more complex ties that bind an artist to his audience.