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(2002) (Javier Cámara, Darío Grandinetti) (R)

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Drama: Two men react differently to having the women they love being in comas.
Benigno (JAVIER CÁMARA) is a male nurse who's spent most of his life caring for bedridden women. The first was his mother, but he now cares for Alicia (LEONOR WATLING), a former ballet student who's been in a coma for several years. Compassionate and hard-working, Benigno claims to be gay, but it's readily apparent that he cares deeply for Alicia, whether it's giving her full body massages or talking to her as if she can understand him.

Marco (DARÍO GRANDINETTI) is a journalist who's been assigned by his paper to interview female bullfighter Lydia (ROSARIO FLORES). While she thinks he's only interested in her high profile but tumultuous relationship with fellow matador Niño de Valencia (ADOLFO FERNÁNDEZ), Marco is more interested in her and the two quickly become an item. Yet, they start to having problems communicating, a point that's only exacerbated when a bull gores and leaves her in a coma.

Lydia is placed in the same facility where Benigno works, and the two men eventually strike up an unlikely friendship. Their views on the women in their lives, however, are vastly different. While Benigno remains optimistic, as does Alicia's ballet instructor, Katarina (GERALDINE CHAPLIN), Marco doesn't see any light at the end of the tunnel for Lydia.

With time passing and Benigno finally expressing his desire to marry Alicia despite her still being comatose, the unexpected development threatens to change the lives of all those involved in ways they never imagined.

OUR TAKE: 8 out of 10
In the classic 1967 prison film, "Cool Hand Luke," there's the memorable and oft-repeated line, "What we have here is a failure to communicate." That, of course, was about a prison guard/inmate "relationship," but it applies to most any human pairing, particularly romantic ones.

In fact, lack of communication is usually the downfall of most any relationship. Imagine the difficulty, then, in trying to carry on such a discourse where one half of the pairing doesn't participate at all, mainly because they're comatose. That's just one of many communication metaphors at play in director Pedro Almodóvar's superb and appropriately entitled "Hable Con Ella" or "Talk To Her."

Somewhat analogous to the incarceration in that Paul Newman film, most of the characters here are imprisoned, in one way or another, from communication or their partner. Two - played by Rosario Flores ("Chatarra," "Contra el Viento") and Leonor Watling ("Deseo, "Son de Mar") spend most of their time onscreen in comas. That leaves their various suitors -- Javier Cámara ("Sex and Lucia," "Torrente 2: Misión en Marbella"), Darío Grandinetti ("Operación Fangio," "El Amateur") and Adolfo Fernández ("Kasbah," "El Arte de Morir") - unable to carry on a two-way conversation with them and/or imprisoned by their inability to come to grips with that.

Unlike many of Almodóvar's previous works - such as "All About My Mother" and "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown" -- that favored or focused on the ladies, this one primarily features the men. The filmmaker doesn't slip any with the gender switch and the male characters are both terrifically drawn and portrayed. I'm not sure why much of Hollywood is incapable of creating such real yet engaging characters when foreign films seem to do so with ease, but that's certainly the case once again with this effort.

While Benigno and Marco might not be exactly likable, they're certainly mesmerizing to behold, and that's without any undue flash or manipulation on the part of Cámara, Grandinetti or Almodóvar. The pain and frustration they experience is palpable as well.

By repeatedly alternating between the past and present, Almodóvar shows us how the characters came to meet and fall for the women in their lives. We then get to see how they deal and have dealt with the tragedy that's befallen them.

Benigno doesn't see it that way at all, and optimistically loves the woman ever deeper day after day, despite her never really knowing him, particularly in a romantic sense. His love for her - while disturbing in the depths to which is sinks - ultimately turns out to be liberating in a sense for both parties, although probably not in a way many viewers will be expecting.

Marco, on the other hand, had problems communicating with his bullfighter girlfriends when she is conscious, and her bull-goring induced coma certainly hasn't helped matters. He refuses to talk to Lydia in her current state, unlike Benigno who carries on like he's in a normal relationship and even sets up something of an unusual double date in one of the film's funnier moments.

The performances from both actors are terrific while the contrasty effect between their characters is equally enlightening, captivating and disturbing. To complement them, Almodóvar has loaded the film from start to finish with various metaphors dealing with communication or the lack thereof. Rather than hammering the viewer over the head with them, however, the filmmaker allows them to flow around and emanate from the main plot in a natural and unforced fashion.

It's a masterful touch and the film consequentially has one layer under the next, all waiting to be discovered by the viewer in the initial viewing or afterwards while reflecting upon everything that was so brilliantly staged and executed.

While not for all viewers due to some disturbing and/or graphic (but also occasionally funny) material, this is the work of a filmmaker at the top of his game. With levels of theme and symbolism unfolding as the story progresses and jumps around through time, this is an art house aficionado's dream come true. Compelling, engaging and thought-provoking, with superb work in front of and behind the camera, "Talk to Her" rates as an 8 out of 10.

Reviewed November 18, 2002 / Posted December 25, 2002

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