I almost didn’t go see Vicky Cristina Barcelona because of a 1.5 star review I read by one of my favorite film critics, Jeffrey Overstreet. But the fact that it was a Woody Allen film with a high percentage on rottentomatoes ultimately led me to go see it this weekend. I’m so glad I did. Just seven months after he crafted one of the tightest and most underrated films of the year in Cassandra’s Dream (read my review here), Allen has done himself one better with this film, his best since Match Point.
I respect and accept Overstreet’s criticisms of the film, as being demeaning to its female characters and a celebration of self-destructive behavior. The film can certainly be read in this way, and certain tonal attributes do indicate that Allen is gleaning much pleasure out of watching his characters suffer under their own silly neuroses. But don’t all comedies take pleasure in the misfortunate of their characters? Sure, this is slightly closer to home than the fakeries of Tropic of Thunder, but it’s crafted with the same storytelling logic: point out the faults and fireworks of human nature (lust, narcissism, etc) and milk it for laughs. It’s exactly what Shakespeare did in his comedies. Don’t tell me that The Taming of the Shrew was any less cruel to its characters than Allen is to his.
Beyond that, Vicky Cristina Barcelona is just an amazingly well-made film. One doesn’t have to agree with all of its philosophical conclusions (and with Allen, one rarely does) to enjoy that it is remarkably sharp, erudite, and entertaining. I couldn’t help smiling at how utterly precise the film’s script was, nailing its characters (albeit bathed in unabashed stereotypes) with the punctual economy and poise of an experienced and world-weary storyteller. And the actors Allen picked work so, so well for the story. Newcomer Rebecca Hall is a stunner, Javier Bardem proves his worth playing a non-psychopath, and Penelope Cruz sizzles with unbridled and hilarious intensity.
And a word about Scarlett Johanssen. I don’t know why people pick on her acting so much. She was totally convincing in this role, playing the same sort of confused, naïve, hormonal youngster in search of herself that she played in Match Point and which serves as Allen’s muse. Yes, it’s a type, and no there is not a lot of nuance to it. But the majority of people don’t have a lot of nuance to them, and someone has to play them. If anything, Johanssen gives her character (Cristina) more depth than she deserves. She’s funny and tragic and remarkably beautiful, and I wouldn’t have had anyone else play the part.
I also don’t think it’s fair to hold this film up to Allen’s oeuvre and pronounce it lacking the “insights about faith or true love” that his best films supposedly have in spades. This is a gorgeous film, vibrant and alive and everything a film should be. But beyond it’s artistic merit I do think it adds to the thematic and, yes, spiritual explorations of Allen’s films. This is a film about individuals longing to be other than what they are… each character has lofty ambitions and dreams and is not satisfied in their current predicament (even while they are all middle or upper class with scant reasons to be dissatisfied). Whether it be a home in Bedford with a tennis court, an aspiration to have a more open and “European” soul, or a desire to eschew fidelity for a passionate dalliance with a Spaniard, this is a film that is fueled by the very human (but perhaps particularly American) desire for the unattainable. Allen is not sanctioning or vilifying such desires, he’s just acknowledging them—in the same way Beethoven acknowledges insatiable passion in his music or Picasso in his painting.
The artistic and truthful representation of passion and longing (even through the somewhat ironic and cynical lens of Woody Allen) is, I argue, innately spiritual. It may not be intentionally so, but Vicky Cristina Barcelona is a spiritually relevant movie. It’s a harsh and hilarious critique of just how self-indulgent and ridiculous we are in our bourgeois spiritual searches, but it is also an earnest lament for the fact that we can’t escape our prevailing discontent if we keep looking for it in the wrong places.