Saturday, January 03, 2009


Penelope Cruz, in Vicky Cristina Barcelona

As I still have a couple of movies to see, I’m not sure if this is my favorite 2008 supporting actress performance. What I can say is that I had high hopes for Marisa Tomei (The Wrestler), Taraji P. Henson (The Curious Case of BB) or Kathy Bates (Revolutionary Road) and I was quite disappointed.
That’s why I went back to Vicky Cristina Barcelona and started to give more credit to Penelope Cruz for her much appreciated, solid, perfect fit performance as crazy Maria Elena, a hot blooded Spanish woman who’s got some… well… love issues.

It would probably be some kind of a cliché to say that it takes a European like me to really understand and connect to such a European character as Maria Elena or even with Woody’s most non-American film that VCB is. The first thing I noticed and appreciated about Penelope is how comfortable she feels with this character, how well she embraces the spirit of Maria Elena and how nice it must be to create a character so close to home (Spain) in a film that will be noticed worldwide.

Though not a leading character (she appears onscreen 50 minutes into the film), we hear about Maria Elena early on from her ex-husband Juan Antonio and we get an idea about her, a very colorful poignant perspective. Before we meet her, we already know that she stabbed him with a knife, that she’s very beautiful, strong-minded, all the fire and music that characterize a Spanish woman. All that’s left for Penelope is too live up to the expectations :) and she does…

Penelope portrays Maria Elena as a fine mixture of crazy and fragile, a free-spirited woman whose life and actions are dominated by her unfiltered instincts. Her big love story with Juan Antonio is also her biggest failure; they’re made for each other, yet there’s a missing ingredient (Cristina, as we’ll later find out) that starts up the destructive part of love.

I loved her especially in the first part, when she gets to meet Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) and to act all superior around her. The breakfast scene is very memorable; without any effort, Maria Elena manages to subtly banter Cristina and to show the audience and Juan Antonio that, despite recent frailty, she’s still got the bone to face anyone. Yet, Cristina isn’t even serious competition; Maria Elena is so bored and blasé that she can’t take her seriously.

I loved the chemistry between Penelope and Javier Bardem, nothing fake there. I liked her powerful voice when calling him by his name (JUAN ANTONIO!), her lack of hesitation when calling him a hypocrite and her naturalness with Spanish language (of course) and the way of pronouncing some English words demonstrating the unfamiliarity of the character with this language (her clumsy pronunciation of “genius”).

There’s also lots of comedy, usually coming from her direct way of speaking, without hesitating: when she simply tells Cristina How could I be sure you were not gonna hurt me? After all, I have thoughts of killing you. :))

Crazy has rarely been so much fun. Yet, the big thing with this performance is that is also has lots of heart and Penelope knows when to let the drama (the real one) come out: her last two appearances in the film are very relevant. Maria Elena is helpless when discovering again that her love story if falling down. Her desperation feels honest; fortunately, though, for the tone of the film, these moments of tension usually end in something funny or ridiculous (the gun scene).

Penelope’s Maria Elena represents both the heart and the balls of the film. Comfortable in her character, Penelope easily manages to create her 2nd best performance to date (making us forget some of her past failures) and will mark the comeback of Woody’s girls in Oscar history.

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Shaun said...

Alex ~ I, too, love Penelope Cruz in this role. She really invests a lot in it, and appears more committed to the backstory of the character than the other actors. I think this is what gives her the most depth in the film. I love that she bursts onto and off the screen - we fear her before she arrives, and we love her when she is onscreen (and I love how she dismisses the stabbing incident as "Oh, that". The only other supporting actresses worth touting this year appear to be Viola Davis in Doubt and Cynthia Nixon in Sex & the City.

Alex in Movieland said...

well, I'm still kind of waiting for Kate Winslet in The Reader (in case I believe the academy and she's supporting). I haven't seen Doubt yet, but I'm not sure Viola Davis is gonna impress me that much with her 5 minutes or whatever (mostly because you can see her big moment even from the trailers or specials).

Who I really am curious to see are Debra Winger in Rachel... and some of the women from Synecdoche (especially Samantha Morton and Dianne Wiest). hope I'll watch them soon.