Written by: Mike Caccioppoli, Feature Film Critic
The old master's still got it.
Some critics (maybe on this website?) will try to tell you that Woody Allen’s best days are behind him. They will say that his new film Vicky Cristina Barcelona is just the latest in a long line of forgettable films from the 70-something Allen. Well, they couldn’t be more wrong. Vicky Cristina Barcelona proves that Allen, through all these years which encompasses a prolific film resume and various personal romances, continues to understand the human condition better than just about any other filmmaker.
Scarlett Johansson is Cristina and Rebecca Hall is Vicky, two friends who travel to the beautiful Spanish city of Barcelona on a summer vacation. Vicky is engaged and Cristina is not. Vicky, we are told by the films narrator (Christopher Evan Welch) is considered to be the level headed and grounded one while Cristina is more spontaneous. In Barcelona those descriptions will be put to the test as they meet Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem) a handsome artist who, in a very upfront manner that upsets Vicky but excites Cristina, asks them to fly with him to the small town of Oviedo and have a weekend of fun and sex with him. Vicky tries to talk Cristina out of going but it’s the opposite that happens. In Oviedo (where there is actually a statue of Allen!) the two girls are shown a great time by Juan and while Cristina eventually ends up in his hotel room, things don’t go as expected. Soon after it’s Vicky who begins to have feelings for Juan and things continue to get more complicated from there.
We learn that Juan had recently broken up with the gorgeous but insane Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz) who actually stabbed him before making her exit from his life. As Vicky tries to understand why she’s having such feelings for Juan when she’s “happily” engaged, Cristina falls in love with him. Soon after moving in with him, Maria Elena enters his life again, and therefore Cristina’s as well. Does Vicky really love her fiancée? Can Cristina put up with Maria Elena’s temper and the fact that Juan probably still loves her?
Vicky Cristina Barcelona is a very pretty film; both Oviedo and Barcelona are beautifully shot by cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe but the relationships that are taking place in the film are anything but neat and pretty. While Vicky might think that she has everything in order and may even be able to fool herself long enough to get married to someone she really doesn’t want to spend the rest of her life with, her feelings for Juan throw her for a loop. Christina, on the other hand may not be as sexually “open” and spontaneous as she thinks. What they experience in Barcelona may just be what happens when we lose ourselves in a different time and place or it might be something much greater than that. What Allen understands and what makes his film so incisive when it comes to relationships is that at no age or time do we really have a grip on affairs of the heart. Oh, sure we can live in a state of denial but for only so long. Allen certainly has been through it all and with Vicky lies his heartbreaks and regrets, while with Cristina lies his sense of optimism and what can still be.
But alas I haven’t even mentioned how funny the film is, not in a Manhattan Murder Mystery kind of way but more of a Manhattan kind of way. The film is sly and knowing and we laugh at the recognition we feel at the emotions on display. The performances are fantastic all around, and the scenes between Bardem and Cruz are absolutely electrifying as he scolds her, “speak English!” and she yaps back in Spanish time and again. Woody Allen not only still has it but with Vicky Cristina Barcelona he’s shown that he still has many vital things to say.