Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar's Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988), quickly became the benchmark against which his other films are judged. But that riotous candy-colored screwball farce &emdash; with its arch, kitschy and breezy style &emdash; represents only a small part of what Almodóvar can do. His phenomenal new film, Live Flesh (Carne Tremula), seems on the surface to be a mystery, or even a film noir. But as in his best works &emdash; particularly the raw, challenging Matador (1986) and the Douglas Sirk-like High Heels (1991) &emdash; a closer look reveals an unabashed melodrama. And Almodóvar is a master of this unjustly maligned genre. In Live Flesh, loosely based on a Ruth Rendell novel, the lives of five men and women become irrevocably intertwined after colliding one fateful night. Two police officers, the young straight-arrow David (Javier Bardem) and the older and volatile Sancho (José Sancho), are on patrol in Madrid. A drunken Sancho has left his wife, the sensual and frustrated Clara (Angela Molina), with a black eye for suspected infidelities. David eyes his partner watchfully.
Meanwhile, the naïve and sexually inexperienced Victor (Liberto Rabal) is anxiously trying to rendezvous with Elena (Francesca Neri), a headstrong junkie. He's hoping to build a relationship from their one brief sexual encounter, but the only man Elena wants to see is her dealer.
Hot tempers prevail over cool resolve, and a melee between the couple and the police results in life-altering gunshots.
Years later, a hardened and determined Victor is released from jail, and his presence directly challenges the semblance of normalcy that the other four have established.
What distinguishes the sly and passionate Live Flesh isn't that it's Almodóvar's straightest film, in both its naturalistic visual style and relatively conventional sexual content. It's that this, his 10th feature, is Almodóvar's most direct. In expertly composed wide-screen images, and excellent use of music and actors who dive under the trembling skin of their characters, Live Flesh unfolds like life, only more so.
Pedro Almodóvar has always been a gifted filmmaker, with the keen eye of a satirist and the soul of a giddy anarchist. Live Flesh reveals even more. Here he has transformed a twisty melodrama into a meditation on confession and redemption, particularly the cleansing power of truth and culpability. It's Almodóvar's non-religious road map to accepting grace.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.