Film Scouts Reviews

"Carne trémula (Live Flesh)"

by Karen Jaehne

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Live flesh is the bit of skin, especially around the mouth, that is beyond our control. It twitches, for example, when we commit sins, crimes or otherwise deny our urges. It is one of the ways the body resists the mind.

Pedro Almodovar, whose last two films reflect a level of filmmaking beyond the camp hysterics that made him famous, offers a stunning vision of near normalcy. Based on Ruth Rendell's novel about the mind of a rapist, the plot of the movie is barely the skeleton of her book - the spine of the crime is that a Victor takes Elena hostage when two cops corner him in her house, and in confusion, Victor shoots the younger cop, David, and disables him for life. In Rendell's book, Victor alone knows he's a pathological rapist; surprisingly, Almodovar steers clear of the issue of rape and its controversy.

Almodovar's film is about sin and atonement. He even makes a statement in the Spanish press book that the problem with Spain is that they believe in original sin. And so does he. For all of you who did not have catechism, original sin is the idea that humans exist in a fallen state. This Fall of Mankind occurred in the Garden of Eden when Adam abused his freedom and had to be punished by being exiled from paradise. We come into the world at birth as fallen creatures and we spend our lives expiating that sin. (Disagreement over this concept inspired various heresies and new religions, but that's another story.) Original sin is the cornerstone of Catholicism, and Spain thrives on it. When Almodovar says he, too, believes in original sin, he is only half joking. It's a concept that helps explain why good people can do bad things or why God allows men to commit horrific acts - it's in their fallen nature. (A little theology never hurt anyone.)

The story of "Live Flesh" picks up as Victor is released from prison on good behavior - very, very good behavior. Victor is the ideal reformed prisoner, complete with educational degree and the desire to come to terms with the cop he consigned to a wheelchair, who is now the star of Spain's Olympic champion paraplegic basketball team. In the six years Victor was in prison, David has not only become an athlete on wheels, he has also married Elena, the spoiled diplomat-brat addict who thanked him for saving her by cleaning up her life and opening an orphanage to help others.

With so much reformation going on, there should be no big problem in Victor going to the orphanage and volunteering to help the children and...uh...the girl he had a one-night stand with that led to his downfall. Elena accepts his help; David doesn't like him around, of course, because cops don't buy that reformed-criminal bit. But love of Elena drives Victor to do things right - if not exactly the right thing. Victor becomes involved with Clara, an experienced woman who also happens to be the wife of Sancho, the other cop with David that fateful night. It also happens that David was having an affair with his partner's wife at that time, and Sancho knew about it.

Happenstance and guys with guns combine for the melodrama that seems to run in Almodovar's veins. But his blood stream is also full of interesting character twists and a love of innovation that makes his films ever more interesting. Almodovar is not afraid of his own vision of fate, and he structures this melodrama as the story of Victor, beginning with his birth on a public bus in 1970 toward the end of Franco's fascist Spain. Visually, we see the place of Victor's birth on the street under a tacky Christmas star, part of Christmas decoration, and in the background are the graffiti of the so-called movimento madrillena, the anti-Franco Spanish underground (in which Almodovar took part with his outrageous films and music and comic books).

In Almodovar's hands this becomes a colorful, exuberant movie about a man whose fate is to find this woman Elena. He has her for a brief moment in a washroom, which she has totally forgotten when he shows up for a real date. She was too stoned, too decadent, too "liberated" to care about him or for him or even for the future. Victor is sidetracked from his pursuit but is savvy enough to make use of his time, so that, once out of jail, he can get back to his fate. Meanwhile, Elena may have become the devout wife of a paraplegic, but when a REAL man arrives, she inevitably falls for him. And Almodovar provides the rigging to make it work.

The criminal Victor is at the same time a kind of naïf, an innocent in the clutches of a fate larger than himself. The Christian imagery runs through the movie in an unobtrusive way, but it's definitely in every corner and under the surface, as Almodovar makes his bid to replace the great Bunuel in Hispanic cinema. As tribute to Bunuel here, he includes scenes from Bunuel's 1956 Mexican film, Rehearsal for a Crime, as a TV show that Victor watches in Elena's living room, after she passes out and falls on the floor.

Live Flesh remains true to its title: it is about irresistible passions, impulses that make our skin twitch. By keeping the focus on the twitching rather than on the passion, Almodovar insures a glittery, sleek, exuberant and entertaining film.

Life Flesh may not be true to life. Original sin may not appeal to everyone, but it's an undeniably compelling vision. Almodovar's destiny is to figure out how to make a masterpiece. This comes close.

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