Talk to Her (Hable con Ella)

Two men, strangers to each other, sit side by side at a performance of the Pina Bausch dance oeuvre, "Café Muller." Benigno (Javier Camara) notices, during the presentation, that his seat companion, Marco (Dario Grandinetti), is quietly weeping. Touched by the man's sensitivity, Benigno, a nurse, sees and remembers Marco much later in the posh private hospital where he works caring for a coma patient. Marco, a journalist, is there to sit with a woman, a bullfighter, who is also in a coma after being gored by a bull in Pedro Almodovar's "Talk to Her."

Laura's Review: A-

Robin's Review: A-

Almodovar is known for his deft use of large, female ensemble casts of characters but departs from his norm with "Talk to Her," a tale of two very different men thrust together by fate. Benigno is a male nurse in the swanky private hospital, El Bosque, and is one of the full time care givers for a coma patient, Alicia (Leonore Watling), the daughter of a well-to-do local psychiatrist. The young nurse spent his life caring for his self-invalided mother, learning nursing, hairdressing and beauty care to help him accomplish his task. When Alicia is struck down to her vegetative state in a tragic car accident, Benigno, who has admired the girl from afar at the local dance academy, happily takes the job to care for her.

Marco's editor gave him the assignment to garner an interview with controversial femme bullfighter Lydia (Rosario Flores) but, instead, saves her from a snake and falls in love. The tragic incident in the ring, and subsequent coma, has put their relationship on hold and Marco is set adrift, not understanding what to do. Benigno notices him walking the halls and draws Marco in to meet Alicia. The nurse is aware of Lydia's plight and offers his assistance to Marco if he needs any help. Benigno advises his new friend that it is important that Marco "talk to her." Lydia may not be able to hear you but, then again, she just might, Benigno believes.

A bond grows between Benigno and Marco with their common cause and they even bring Alicia and Lydia together to sit outside, catch some rays and get some fresh air. Time and routine roll along as Benigno performs his daily rituals in caring for Alicia, sharing shift responsibilities with Rosa (Mariola Fuentes), who secretly harbors a crush for effeminate Benigno. As he massages, moisturizes, grooms, bathes, shampoos and manicures his ward Benigno regales Alicia with his private life, especially his fondness for old, often silent films.

At about the halfway mark, the action shifts to an excerpt from a soundless flick called "Shrinking Love," a black and white sci-fi yarn about a beautiful scientist who is too late in stopping her boyfriend from drinking her untested formula. He shrinks to a few inches tall and, eventually, has sex with his girlfriend, which gives the term "giving head" new meaning. It's cheesy F/X and a little bit corny but it is a lot of good-natured erotic fun. But, this interlude is a sly bit of misdirection as something happens, as we watch the silent film, which changes Benigno's life forever. Marco, in the Middle East at the time, returns to Spain and stands by his friend as things go tragically wrong.

Pedro Almodovar is a world-class director and has a body of work to be proud of. With "Talk to Her" he explores little visited story concept of the life of a coma patient and those who are their caretakers. For Benigno, it's just a matter of switching patients. He was a good boy taking care of his mom, who suddenly decided to become a bed-ridden invalid when her husband abandoned her. As he got older and she more dependent he earned his nursing certificate and the other skills without intruding too much on the care and feeding of mom. When she passed away and the opportunity arises to take the well-paying job caring for Alicia, he jumps at the opportunity to be near the girl who, before, was only an elusive dream. There is a hidden agenda though and, well, see the film and judge for yourself.

The performances are top notch with Javier Camara giving a standout perf as Benigno. The actor actually learned the tasks he performs for Alicia, from massage to cutting hair to performing his nursing duties with meticulous care, creating a realistic character. His moral dilemma, and subsequent legal problems, bears down on the viewer, too, as we empathize with the man's slightly aberrant view of life. Camara has been on a number of best actor lists and he has the presence of character, as Benigno, to deserve the attention.

Dario Grandinetti gives a more closed, introspective performance as Marco. We find out that he had a long-term relationship with Angela (Elena Anaya), a young lady with a fondness for partaking in Madrid's heroin trade. He took her away to exotic places and they found their métier in creating an offbeat series of fairly popular travelogues. They return to Madrid only to have Angela's parents take her away for him and Marco never sees his love again. When he meets Lydia he is taken by her intelligence, artistry and willingness to fight the odds as a lone female in the male dominated sport of bullfighting. He puts aside his interview plans and is, instead, courteously attentive to her desire for privacy which plays out to a romantic relationship which is terminated by the abrupt violence in the bullring, (Note that he bullfighting scenes are shot elegantly but the effects of the blood sport are visually apparent and probably not for the squeamish.)

The supporting cast is limited but is good nonetheless. Leonore Watling has the tough job of lying quietly and being manipulated without a single flinch. Interspersed flashbacks show the girl's lively and loving nature, especially for her mentor, Katerina (Geraldine Chaplain) the former ballerina and present owner/teacher of the Decadence Dance Academy. Rosario Flores carries her self with the posture and dignity of a real bullfighter. She wears the suit of lights with the air of an athlete but also conveys her doubts over being accepted in the male-dominated world. Hers is a conflicted and complex character Lydia, unfortunately, is in the picture far too briefly.

Behind the camera work suits the quality of the acting and the screenplay (by Almodovar). Esther Garcia gives the production design a degree of warmth that belies its primarily hospital setting as Benigno brings Alicia's bedroom accoutrements to her hospital room to give it a homey feel. Javier Aguirresarobe lenses the proceeds capably and with visual imagination. Alberto Iglesias's score flows nicely with the story.

"Talk to Her" is the kind of film that grows on you upon reflection. The quiet, effective performances of its stars create a bond of friendship, though begun out of necessity, that continues to the end.

Laura's Score: A-