Maybe 2008 wasn’t that bad of a year for American cinema after all. Since I posted my year end summation where I blasted recent homegrown output, I’ve seen three exceptional American films – The Wrestler, Wendy and Lucy, and now Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Consider me humbled.
Woody Allen’s latest European jaunt is his best film in years, definitely since Crimes and Misdemeanors, and it’s not just the hypnotic locale that makes Vicky Cristina Barcelona so enthralling. Allen’s crisp and clever screenplay realizes a stunning theme of disappointment running through the veins of each character, no matter their perceptions about love. While much of the film seems dictated by the contrasts between Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson), the real pleasure lies in how each functions as a three dimensional character, not hindered by convention or cliche.
In the end, they are linked by a distinct understanding of each other, best on display when Cristina tells a fascinated Vicky and her indifferent yuppie fiance about a tryst with Spaniard artists Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem) and Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz). Men are either oblivious or inept throughout the film (except for the great narration by Christopher Evan Welch), and Allen makes sure to highlight this gender alienation, favoring the struggle and complexity of his female characters. This motif echoes the best films by Pedro Almodovar and Allen must have had the Spanish master in mind when casting Bardem and Cruz in these meaty roles. Vicky Cristina Barcelona floats through the light Spanish air with a sense of longing and solace, pushing toward an inevitable lineage of momentary adventure, stifling romance, and heart-numbing dread.