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August 19, 2008

‘Vicky Cristina Barcelona’ excels in effortless interaction

(Starring Javier Bardem, Scarlett Johansson, Rebecca Hall, Patricia Clarkson and Penelope Cruz. Directed by Woody Allen. Rated PG-13; 1:36. LEO Report Card: A-)

Even with the stunning shots of the quaint streets of Barcelona, even with the seductive Spanish guitar filling the background, the most beautiful aspects of this Woody Allen film are the seamless casual conversations between characters — both the natural, spoken dialogue and those tense moments where no words are exchanged at all. Sometimes more is said in the rapid shifts of eyes or the sensual manner by which a person brings a wine glass to their lips. Allen has always had a way with effortless, rapid-fire dialogue, and his canvas in “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” is no exception.

“The only romantic love is unrequited love,” smooth-talking artist Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem) tells American tourists Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) and Vicky (Rebecca Hall) while wooing by sharing his somewhat idealistic views on relationships and a spontaneous life. It takes no time for the flighty romantic Cristina to entertain Juan’s offer for the girls join him for a weekend in a small Spanish village to check out sculpture and share a bed. But the straight-laced and engaged Vicky brushes off his advances and berates her friend for even thinking of leaving with a stranger. Thanks but no thanks, she tells Juan. The next shot shows the two girls in a private plane with Juan in turbulent weather — Cristina in the front, batting her eyes at the handsome man; Vicky in the back, clutching onto her baggage for dear life. 

As the girls become intertwined in Juan’s not-so-simplistic world, each begins to realize shortcomings in her own life. For Cristina, it’s mystery and spontaneity — and it also may have something to do with Juan’s crazy ex-wife Maria (Penelope Cruz), who returns to his life and forms a friends-and-lovers bond with Cristina while teaching her photography. For Vicky, who had a brief affair with him one night while Cristina was sick, Juan represents everything her life and future life with her fiancée is not — passion-filled, unscheduled, unconventional. 

The film is mostly comical — narrated by a fast-talking whimsical voice that serves to move the plot from one pivotal conversation to the next. It’s jarring at first but becomes something you just accept because you are, well, watching a Woody Allen movie. Allen is the god of his creations — you just follow where he leads. And most of the time, it pays off. 

While Bardem should be commended for capturing Juan’s confident and somewhat eccentric charm, it’s Johansson and Hall who mold Allen’s heavy dialogue into natural conversation.