Los Angeles Times

'Bendito Infierno'

Times Staff Writer

Agustin Díaz Yanes' "Bendito Infierno" ("Blessed Inferno"), the third offering in the Viva tu Ciné! series of Spanish-language films being released in selected theaters in the Los Angeles area, is a disappointment, especially since it features international stars Penélope Cruz and Gael García Bernal along with well-known Spanish actors Victoria Abril, Demián Bichir and French diva Fanny Ardant. None of these gifted performers is able to overcome the dire material.

It is an unpersuasively contrived, tedious and murky heaven and hell allegory that labors mightily to be amusing and witty. Díaz Yanes imagines heaven to be a black-and-white Paris, where one of its characters (Ardant) operates a large nightclub right out of the '40s or '50s. Hell seems to be a vast, overheated subterranean prison whose chief executive is one Jack Davenport (Bernal). (In this hell, everyone speaks English, and it seems to be populated entirely by Brits and Latinos speaking English with heavy accents.)

Meanwhile, Earth seems to be Madrid or another large Spanish city, where punch-drunk fighter Manny (Bichir) has been told by his doctor that he must retire or risk death if he enters the ring again. Sensing that he probably will take that risk, Davenport and Ardant's Marina dispatch emissaries to fight for Manny's soul; indeed, Marina worries that heaven has so few new citizens that she might have to shut down. Marina's envoy is her club's over-the-top chanteuse Lola (Abril), who assumes the form of Manny's wife. Davenport sends his best operative, Carmen (Cruz), a tough, mannish woman. (One of Carmen's punishments in hell was to have been turned from a man into a woman). Carmen turns up at Manny's apartment as a cousin he hasn't seen since childhood.

What ensues is so glum and disjointed that the film becomes an even bigger mess. It has been trimmed by 10 minutes from its original 118-minute running time, which may have something to do with why "Bendito Infierno" is so incoherent.

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