Penélope Cruz Shines in Vicky Cristina Barcelona

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An untapped sense of aching emptiness permeates the central characters in writer-director Woody Allen’s 39th feature film Vicky Cristina Barcelona. As American tourists Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) travel through northern Spain, they also traverse inner conflicts involving desire, romance, sex and love. And it’s truly a ride of pure enjoyment to watch them attempting to define and find themselves as they roll along in their journey.

This comedy commences with the arrival of friends Vicky and Cristina in Barcelona where they have decided to spend the summer with Vicky’s family friends. Vicky is engaged to be married and very committed to her studies (she’s doing a PhD in Catalonian identity), while Cristina, an aspiring filmmaker and actress, is getting over a relationship and is extremely care free.

After noticing each other at a gallery opening, during dinner Vicky and Cristina are approached by local painter Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem) who candidly proposes a weekend trip to Oviedo involving a plane trip, sightseeing and sex. Together or individually, he says matter-of-factly

When Cristina quickly accepts, Vicky goes along as a chaperone and during the course of the trip they both get seduced by Juan Antonio. After they return to Barcelona, Juan Antonio and Cristina begin a relationship that is disrupted at first by his passionate yet unstable ex wife, María Elena (a mesmerizing Penelope Cruz) but soon blossoms into a three way affair. Vicky, on the other hand, realizes that she is unsatisfied with her relationship and is still attracted to Juan Antonio.

In the hands of an unskilled filmmaker, this simple and somewhat formulaic story would have seemed like a Saturday night Cinemax skin flick. But Allen fills the characters with enough wit, desperation and confusion that at times the viewer treats them like a sociology exhibit as they seem to franticly long to be taken somewhere other than their existing reality. But where does one end up when you haven’t taken the time to know yourself?

It is evident that at this point in his career that Woody Allen is merely preoccupied with telling a story that appeals to his keen observational skills of society rather than basking in the plastic and masturbatory self-adulation offered by Hollywood. For that, he remains a complete anomaly.

Whatever Works his next film, is scheduled to arrive in theaters in mid-2009. And after his last four films were set in England or Spain and seemed to feature his muse Scarlett Johansson, Whatever Works is set in New York City and stars Larry David and Emma Thompson.