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MOVIE REVIEW : ‘Jamon’ a Dark Comedy About Sexual Shenanigans

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Comedies don’t come much darker than Spanish filmmaker’s Bigas Luna’s breezy, outrageous sex farce “Jamon Jamon” (at the Royal). It has a pow-in-the-kisser finish you may hate for seeming to spoil your fun, but upon consideration--or a second viewing--it becomes clear that the ending has the quality of inevitability.

Far from puritanically punishing the participants for their entangled sexual shenanigans, Luna, long an explicit chronicler of sexual obsession, is merely observing in bemused fashion the way in which passion tends to rage out of control.

From its opening shot, a view of a stretch of arid highway framed by an immense anatomically correct roadside silhouette of a bull, “Jamon Jamon” has fun with the obsession with male sexual endowment. We’re in a desert-like region that is the site of a nearby men’s underwear factory, where its owner’s attractive but shrewish wife Conchita (Stefania Sandrelli) sizes up a lineup of young men trying out for a modeling job.

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Conchita is as concerned with selecting the man who best fills out the merchandise as she is over her son’s affair with one of her factory workers, the beautiful Silvia (Penelope Cruz), who is not only pregnant by him but also the daughter of the still young and equally beautiful Carmen (Anna Galiena), proprietress of the local roadside brothel. Quick to put two-and-two together, Conchita decides that the model she picks, Raul (Javier Bardem), a local stud who drives a ham delivery truck and aspires to bullfighting, is just the guy to bribe into seducing Silvia away from her pouty, ineffectual son Jose Luis (Jordi Molla). But what if she is to fall under the spell of Raul’s bold, earthy charms herself?

Long before anyone in America had ever heard of Pedro Almodovar, Bigas Luna was gleefully shaking up audiences. With his disturbingly powerful 1978 “Bilbao,” which inevitably brought to mind “The Collector,” Luna worked in a gritty, naturalistic style yet made completely credible the increasingly distorted imaginings of a young man obsessed with a voluptuous, uncomplicated, hard-working prostitute.

If “Bilbao’s” hero went too far, Luna himself lapsed into the thoroughly nauseous the following year with “Caniche” (Poodle), a revolting tale about an extravagantly decayed brother and sister who get carried away with their passion for their dogs and each other.

Luna was last heard of five years ago with “Anguish,” a horror picture that for all its Grand Guignol grisliness was a serious consideration of the power of movies in the blurring of reality and fantasy in which a crazy mother and son (Zelda Rubinstein and Michael Lerner) echo the brother and sister in “Caniche.” Although Luna, with his darkly outrageous view of sex, has lots in common with Almodovar, he is an idiosyncratic filmmaker if there ever was one.

Without a doubt “Jamon Jamon,” which was among Spain’s 10 top box-office hits last year, will become Luna’s best-known movie to date. It also may be his best, for it proceeds with an assured nonchalance, its vigorous rhythms punctuated with cuts to trucks roaring down that highway and buoyed by Nicola Piovani’s score, which alternates between the jaunty and the plaintive, depending on the mood of the scene.

While Galiena, Cruz and Molla are entirely admirable, Sandrelli, the elegant Italian actress now in her gorgeous 40s, and the well-muscled Bardem have the roles that require them to carry the picture, which they do with ease. While Bardem, who recalls the young Jean-Paul Belmondo in his ability to take humorous pleasure in his unabashed sexiness, plays the happy-go-lucky boor, Sandrelli is the ultimate hypocritical bourgeoisie.

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With “Caniche,” Luna was heavy-handed in his attack on the bourgeoisie; here, he lets us take his social commentary or leave it, yet it is undeniable that what makes “Jamon Jamon” so explosive is its clash between sex and class. “Jamon Jamon’s” distributor rejected an R-rating--you would think it would draw an NC-17--and it is Times-rated Mature for considerable sex and nudity, and for language.

‘Jamon Jamon’ Penelope Cruz: Silvia Anna Galiena: Carmen Javier Bardem: Raul Stefania Sandrelli: Conchita

An Academy Films of a LolaFilms, S.A./Ovideo TV production. Director Bigas Luna. Executive producer Andres Vicente Gomez. Screenplay by Cuca Canals, Luna. Cinematographer Jose Luis Alcaine. Editor Teresa Font. Music Nicola Piovani. Production design Chu Uroz. Art director Julio Esteban. Set designer Pep Olive. Set decorator Gloria M. Palanques. Sound Miguel Rejas. In Spanish, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes.

Times-rated Mature (for considerable sex and nudity, and for language).

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