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Belated recognition for a Spanish iconoclast

Times Staff Writer

The American Cinematheque’s tribute to Bigas Luna, a six-film, three-day mini-retrospective, calls overdue attention to the iconoclastic Spanish director. It also makes it all the more puzzling that the terrific “Jamon Jamon,” starring Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz, no less, is one of the very few Luna films to receive American release.

Luna’s films overflow with lust, ego, humor and energy, and in the apt phrase from the Cinematheque program notes, “satirize Spanish culture without deflating any of its mysteries.” Luna will discuss his films between presentations Friday and Sunday at the Egyptian and Saturday at the Aero.

The series opens Friday with “Jamon Jamon,” a dark, outrageous farce from 1990 that has fun with the obsession for male sexual endowment and sets off an explosion between class and sex. When the wife (Stefania Sandrelli) of a men’s underwear factory owner selects Bardem, a stud who drives a ham delivery truck and aspires to bullfighting, to model their newest line, she also figures he is just the guy to bribe into seducing beautiful factory worker Cruz away from her pouty, ineffectual son (Jordi Molla). But what if Sandrelli is to fall under the spell of Bardem’s bold, earthy charms?

Playing with it is the disturbingly powerful “Bilbao” (1978). Luna works in a gritty, naturalistic style yet makes completely credible the increasingly distorted imaginings of a young man (Angel Jove) who becomes obsessed with a voluptuous, uncomplicated, hard-working prostitute (Isabel Pisano).

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On Saturday, “Golden Balls” stars Bardem in an outrageous and entertaining sendup of self-deluding machismo. Bardem can seem as almost comically virile and sensual as Victor Mature, but in this 1993 film he was already a superb actor who could comment on the Latin lover stereotype. In this instance he is a ruthless, struggling builder who equates erecting skyscrapers with his sexual potency.

Would that the Cinematheque had selected “Anguish” (1988), a nifty Luna horror picture that was also a serious consideration of the power of movies in the blurring of reality and fantasy, instead of “Poodle” (1978), a revolting tale about an extravagantly decayed brother and sister who get carried away with their dogs. It is most kindly viewed as an understandable if extreme reaction to the end of the lengthy and oppressive Franco dictatorship.

In the erotic, poetic fable “Sound of the Sea,” a classics teacher (Molla), newly arrived at a Mediterranean seaport town, becomes swiftly caught up with a smoldering young local (Leonor Watling), only to vanish and then reappear years later after Watling has married a construction tycoon (Eduard Fernandez). It sets the stage for a bold and affecting finale.

Playing with this 2001 production is “Volaverunt” (1999), a lush and witty speculation into who poisoned the scandalous duchess of Alba (Aitana Sanchez-Gijon) and who really posed for Goya’s “Naked Maja.”

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Hitchcock silent

“Blackmail” (1929) was at once Alfred Hitchcock’s last silent and first talkie -- and also Britain’s first talkie. The sound version surfaces occasionally, but the silent version is a great rarity and therefore a special treat from the Silent Movie, which screens it Monday with live organ accompaniment by Bob Mitchell.

Charles Bennett, upon whose play the film is based, pronounced the silent version “infinitely superior,” which may be overstating the case -- though perhaps not a lot. In any event, “Blackmail” is still suspenseful, full of Hitchcockian touches and on the whole more satisfying that the talkie version.

The film’s exquisite Polish star, Anny Ondra, benefits most from being seen in the silent version. In the sound version, all of her scenes had to be reshot, with Ondra, whose English was poor, mouthing her dialogue as Joan Barry stood off-screen reciting her lines.

Cast as the vivacious daughter of a London shopkeeper, Ondra becomes foolishly susceptible to the lounge lizard charms of artist Cyril Ritchard. He invites her to his apartment, with disastrous results.

*

Screenings

Tribute to Bigas Luna

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* “Jamon Jamon” and “Bilbao": 7:30 p.m. Friday at the Egyptian;

5 p.m. Sunday at the Aero

* “Golden Balls” and “Poodle": 7 p.m. Saturday, Egyptian; 7:30 p.m. Friday, Aero

* “Sound of the Sea” and “Volaverunt": 5 p.m. Sunday, Egyptian; 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Aero

Where: Egyptian Theatre, 6712 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood; Aero Theatre, 1328 Montana Ave., Santa Monica

Info: (323) 466-FILM; www.americancinematheque.com

Silent Movie Mondays

* “Blackmail": 8 p.m. Monday

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Where: Silent Movie Theatre, 611 N. Fairfax Ave., L.A.

Info: (323) 655-2520; www.silentmovietheatre.com


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