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MOVIE REVIEW : ALMODOVAR’S LURID YET TENDER ‘LAW’

Times Staff Writer

Leave it to Spain’s openly gay film maker Pedro Almodovar, in his latest film, “Law of Desire,” to spin a lurid tale of lust and violence in which the central figure is a famous gay film director, a man for whom other men are prepared to die.

Yet if Eusebio Poncela’s epicene, blond Pedro is to be taken as an alter ego for the dark, chunky Almodovar, it’s in the spirit of self-mocking humor; Almodovar is too busy sending up the absurdities of human passion--and surely, also his own capacity for egotistical fantasy--to be pretentious. Besides, he has a true mastery of camp pathos, extending compassion to those carried away in the deadliest and most delirious of follies. “Law of Desire” (at the Los Feliz) sets off its unbridled outrageousness with a genuine tenderness.

Its pre-credit sequence involving three men, borders on hardcore, but has nothing to do with the plot that follows; it’s the movie’s tone-setter, its theme--the implacability of desire.

Pedro is on a break both from film making and from his much younger lover Juan (Miguel Molina), who has left him. The rift may be only temporary, but it permits him to respond to the ardent pursuit of the handsome, 20-year-old Antonio (Antonio Benitez). At the same time Pedro is preparing a stage production of Cocteau’s “Human Voice” and has asked his gaudy sister Tina (Carmen Maura), a nightclub entertainer with intense acting aspirations, to appear in it.

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Never mind that Pedro, even though rich and famous, hardly seems the type to inspire grand passion, and never mind that when we learn Tina’s secret it demands suspension of disbelief. What concerns Almodovar most is how Pedro, Antonio and Tina behave, according to the “law of desire.” Indeed, Almodovar gets away with piling on the most flabbergasting plot developments and baldest coincidences because each development steadfastly reveals so many ruefully amusing truths about human nature.

“Law of Desire” is truly bravura in its driving pace and nonchalant tone. Almodovar directs like a crack race driver who is fearless of the sharpest curves. He inspires his actors to drop every possible inhibition--often along with their clothes. Carmen Maura, clearly an Almodovar favorite, carries off an all-stops-out flamboyance as effectively as she played a drab, overworked housewife in “What Did I Do to Deserve This?” And rarely has so handsome an actor as Antonio Benitez been asked to play so totally crazed a fool. Yet in holding nothing back, in trusting Almodovar so completely, both actors concern us in their fates easily as much as Poncela’s lower-key Pedro.

“Law of Desire” (Times-rated Mature for adult themes and situations) inevitably has disturbing undertones because it proceeds as if AIDS didn’t exist. One wonders how long film makers expect to depict sexual promiscuity with such cinematic license.

As for Almodovar, it becomes clearer with each film that he’s the Fassbinder for the ‘80s. Although buoyant rather than despairing, as Fassbinder increasingly became, Almodovar has the same daring, virtuoso command of the medium and the same ability to make a gay sensibility provide a perspective on all human foibles.

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‘LAW OF DESIRE’ A Cinevista release. Executive producer Miguel A. Perez Campos. Writer-director Pedro Almodovar. Associate producer Agustin Almodovar. Camera Angel Luis Fernandez. Art director Javier Fernandez. Costumes Jose Maria Cossio. Film editor Jose Salcedo. With Eusebio Poncela, Carmen Maura, Antonio Banderas, Miguel Molina, Manuela Velasco, Bibi Andersen, Fernando Guillen, Nacho Martinez, Helga Line. In Spanish, with English subtitles.

Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.

Times-rated: Mature.


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