Woody Allen is back.

Vicky Christina Barcelona

An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis

            Woody Allen is back. After dabbling in movie mediocrity for a while, he went to England to make the fine “Match Point,” and now he has written and directed a perfectly crafted story in “Vicky Christina Barcelona.” If England was a way stop for Allen, Barcelona is where he fell in love. Every filmed frame of the city is enveloped in the golden light of someone who sees it with eyes that love each detail of the city and its culture. His story isn’t just set in Barcelona; it could only be there.

            Next victory: perfect casting. Javier Bardem springs from the fabric of Barcelona. After spotting two American tourists at a gallery opening, he sees them again in a café and approaches them with a proposal: “Fly with me to Oviedo for the weekend.” What will they do? “See my favorite sculpture, drink wine, make love. The night is warm and balmy and we’re alive; isn’t that enough?”

            After giving us that magical capsule of European attitude, Allen then turns his eye on the Americans and gives us a telling and extraordinarily perceptive portrait of two young college graduates and their response to Juan Antonio (Bardem). Vicky (Rebecca Hall) plans to study for her Masters in Barcelona; she is engaged to Doug (Chris Messina), a stick figure Wall Street networker, and is horrified by the proposal. Christina (Scarlett Johanssen), a far freer spirit with a past full of impulsive flings, is on board all the way. “We’re alive, isn’t that enough?” is plenty for her.

            Of Vicky, Juan Antonio says, “She analyzes everything until all the charm is squeezed out of it.” It’s the comically American and tortured Woody Allen way of deconstructing options until they are bone dry. Christina, on the other hand is impulsive and despairing of America’s materialistic culture. She’s alive, isn’t she, and this is Barcelona – golden in its poets, artists, musicians, and restaurants. She moves in with the painter.

            Though we know the film is building to the entrance of Juan Antonio’s ex-wife, Maria Elena, nothing prepares us for the explosive arrival of Penelope Cruz who storms on screen in a turmoil of emotion. Her mercurial Maria Elena shouts and screams and accuses in a seamless mixture of Spanish and English that is hilarious. She smokes and drinks and paints and lights the sky with trouble. She is simply superb. Her bi-lingual conversational pyrotechnics relegate the American accents to high definition provincialism.

            Still credit goes where it’s due: to every performer in this movie, to the technicians who know how to show love through light, to Javier Bardem who in understating his life truths, becomes bigger and gentler than life itself, to Cruz who has become a dazzling presence, and to Woody Allen who made something grand of a slight premise - two American girls abroad. He has recovered all his gifts in writing this gossamer story for a wondrous cast in a perfect city. He’s back.


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