Review: Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)

The release of a Woody Allen movie is something of an annual occurence. But always remember that when discussing the life and career of Woody Allen you should choose your words carefully. It is best to say that you strongly appreciate his work but his personal life disturbs you. This will earn you the respect of countless pop culture snobs and Annie Hall-aholics alike. Admitting to having a thing for Woody Allen will most likely have others questioning your state of mind. Considering the fact that Woody Allen releases approximately one film per year, this is valuable information to remember, especially if you ever find yourself defending his films to a Mia Farrow fan.

Allen’s latest effort is Vicky Cristina Barcelona, the director’s fourth consecutive film shot outside of the United States and his forty-first film overall. Following the not-so memorable features Scoop (2006) and Cassandra’s Dream (2007), Vicky Cristina Barcelona is a much welcomed and appreciated return to the quality filmmaking that Woody Allen is celebrated for. Much like his most celebrated features such as Annie Hall (1977), Manhattan (1979) and Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) during which New York City becomes a character into herself, Vicky Cristina Barcelona is a celebration of the Spanish city and Catalan culture.

Like most Woody Allen films, Vicky Cristina Barcelona addresses matters of heart. Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) are two American friends spending the summer in Barcelona. Aided by a narrator we learn the innermost thoughts of the characters. Vicky is working on her Master’s degree in Catalan identity, and knows what she wants from life. The following autumn, she plans to marry her boring fiancé Doug (Chris Messina). Cristina is her opposite; she is spontaneous and unsure of what she wants. She just made a twelve-minute film about love but is still no closer to finding it.
Enter Juan Antonio, played by Javier Bardem, a passionate painter who is known in the art world for his violent relationship with his ex-wife Maria Elena (Penélope Cruz). After he spontaneously invites the pair to spend the weekend with him in Oviedo, both women are seduced by this Latin lover. This chance weekend in Oviedo disrupts both women’s lives and sends the film down a path of passion, intrigue and interesting scenarios.

But the heart and true beauty of Vicky Cristina Barcelona belongs to Penélope Cruz. As Maria Elena, Juan Antonio’s crazy ex-wife, the Spanish actress steals the limelight from the presumptive lead actresses. Unlike Johansson who offers nothing more than pouty lips, blonde hair and blank stares, Cruz plays a dynamic character that is full of fire, humor and pure fervor. In scenes where Juan Antonio and Maria Elena’s arguments are so intense you can feel their emotions prickle under your skin, Cruz effortlessly transitions from Spanish to English, never dropping the scene’s quick pace or losing Maria Elena’s fieriness. And you’ll forget to read the subtitles. It may only be September, but Cruz is already being mentioned as a likely Oscar-nominee.

With Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Woody Allen once again proves why his films are often the most anticipated releases each year. Allen’s superb writing and direction, as well as the beyond exceptional acting of Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz, make Vicky Cristina Barcelona a film worth seeing.

Published: September 11, 2008
The Mount Holyoke News

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