If Woody Allen's heart still belongs to New York City, he's had a thrilling, invigorating fling with northeastern Spain. The proof is "Vicky Cristina Barcelona," a vicarious holiday in the beautiful Catalonian city.
The setting is both glorious and crucial to the movie. The film opens with a serene image of an abstract mosaic that might grace the wall of an art museum. We pull back a bit and see that it's a decoration on the terminal of a busy Spanish train station. The movie operates like that. It seems to be a casual story about two American students and their vacation adventures, but eventually it reveals deeper meanings.
Vicky and Cristina are smart, intense but somewhat naïve college graduates. They take themselves and their romantic lives quite seriously and try, in a self-conscious way, to talk in a manner that might sound impressive at an art history seminar. Uninhibited, insecure Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) is mending from a breakup but eager to find a new infatuation to carry her away. Vicky (Rebecca Hall) is more pragmatic, planning to marry a mundane young exec back in New York City.
When they encounter handsome artist Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), they're drawn into torrid affairs with him, one after the other. Vicky realizes that a proper marriage to a decent guy may never thrill her, while Cristina fleetingly feels she's discovered a kindred spirit in Juan Antonio.
Events take a darkly funny turn when the artist's lunatic ex-wife, Maria Elena (Penélope Cruz), returns to his life following a suicide attempt. Maria Elena is wildly emotional, a piñata of nuttiness. Even her hair looks deranged -- think Frida Kahlo on Red Bull -- but she's appealing and entertaining. After crossing a number of sexual boundaries with the Spanish couple, Cristina comes to realize that an excess of desire and passion is a blueprint for instability and disappointment.
The movie's plot is lighthearted, and the lingering shots of Barcelona's landmarks are suffused with golden light. Behind the laughs and the sensual Old World setting, however, the story has a melancholy core. At 72, Allen is still gripped by the unfathomable subject of love and explores his dramatic material in a way that feels fresh. In a rare move for him, he employs narration to move the story along. Sloppily used, such voiceovers are lazy, but here the device efficiently compresses the characters' histories and allows wry, novelistic glimpses into their motivations and their futures. It's as if Allen himself were saying, "I've seen it all before; here's what will happen next."
The film's lovely settings and engaging company make "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" a welcome place to spend some time. Its appealing wisdom and emotional authenticity in its handling of affairs of the heart mark it as an offering by, for and about intelligent people. It should satisfy discriminating viewers craving some substance after three months of big-boom summer fare.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186