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"Hable con ella", directed by Pedro Almodóvar (2002)

Almodóvar's first movie since his Academy Award-winning "All About My Mother", this strange and beautiful movie is in many ways typical of this well-known director. It's part comedy, part melodrama, and all Spanish. The story centres on a male nurse, Benigno (Javier Cámara), who cares for the beautiful Alicia (Leonor Watling). She had been a dancer and Benigno had loved her from afar; then she was struck by a car, fell into a coma, and ended up Benigno's charge. He lovingly washes her, cuts her hair, gives her manicures - and talks to her, convinced that she can hear.

Benigno strikes up a friendship with Marco (Darío Grandinetti), a journalist and travel writer; his girlfriend Lydia (Rosario Flores) is a female matador who is in a coma as a result of being gored by a bull during a bullfight. Benigno counsels Marco to talk to her, but Marco has trouble believing this will have any impact on Lydia.

Almodóvar is famous for his sensitive direction of women, and the two here are very good, but it's the relationship between the two men that lies at the heart of this movie. Rare indeed is the film that shows men really communicating and caring for one another; this one does, and does it beautifully.

In spite of the strong bond between the two men, however, the characters all struggle with loneliness; they seem unable to reach out and touch each other, blocked by barriers real or imaginary. Such a story could easily disintegrate into the maudlin, but not in Almodóvar's capable hands. Instead, the narrative moves in and out of the past, layering the understanding of the relationships between the characters and interspersing the straightforward story-telling with cinematic gems, including the opening scene. It is a gorgeous performance of Pina Bausch's dance "Café Müller", which has two women wandering blindly onstage while a guardian moves obstacles out of their way; in the audience, sitting side by side, are Benigno and Marco, strangers still, though Benigno notices Marco cry. In the middle of the movie, Almodóvar has Benigno tell Alicia about a silent movie he has seen, "The Shrinking Lover", and suddenly the film is there on screen; the film-within-a-film is racy but hilarious, and reveals a bizarre parallel with Benigno's relationship to the comatose woman.

Critics are raving about Almodóvar's latest, and it's easy to see why. The outlandish plot seems totally moving and believable in the hands of the increasingly assured director, and the acting is superb - the two actors who play the women in comas apparently studied yoga for months to be able to convincingly appear unconscious. Also wonderful is the cinematography: the sheets on the women's bodies, the vibrant colours of the rooms, the landscapes in the countryside, even the gruesome shots of the bleeding bulls at the bullfight - it all looks gorgeous, and so very Mediterranean. Sure to gain several Oscar nominations this year, I highly recommend this one.

Update March 25: Pedro Almodóvar won this year's best original screenplay for "Talk to Her".

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