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Penelope: On the right curve

Sex symbols do not usually make super actresses, but she is an exception, writes Saibal Chatterjee.

india Updated: Aug 19, 2006 19:29 IST
Saibal Chatterjee | WIDE ANGLE
Saibal Chatterjee | WIDE ANGLE

Sex symbols do not usually make super actresses. One or two of them may occasionally sizzle enough to assume the status of stars and divas, but they invariably fall just a tad short when it comes to the more demanding craft of fleshing out real figures on the screen that go on to populate movie folklore.

That was indeed one worry that had for long dogged fans of the bewitching Penelope Cruz, the first Spanish actress to make a full-fledged transition to English-language global cinema.

Would, they wondered, the Spanish enchantress’ lucrative Hollywood career, that has been well documented over the years more for her affairs with her co-stars-turned-boyfriends (Matt Damon, Tom Cruise, Matthew McConaughey) than for her roles, deflect the her away from the pursuit of immortality?

Penelope Cruz hasn’t quite got there yet, but she is clearly on the way, if her work in Pedro Almodovar’s brilliant ode to the tenacity of women, Volver, is any indication.

The Spanish maverick’s competition entry wowed critics at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, besides helping Cruz share the Best Actress prize with her cast mates – Carmen Maura, Yohana Cobo and Lola Duenas. Nobody could have been more deserving.

It was indeed outstanding on-screen teamwork. However, the earthy Cruz, playing the working class mother of a rebellious teenaged daughter, was at her very best. The performance hinged on the very qualities that her Hollywood directors have so far been unable to recognize, let alone tap.

Penelope Cruz’s performance in Pedro Almodovar’s Volver  was appreciated at the Cannes Film Festival this year.

The return to the domain of an infinitely more challenging Spanish cinema – through a fabulous film made by one of the world’s greatest directors – was a smart move on Cruz’s part. It enabled the 32-year-old actress to reclaim the space that she had seemed completely capable of making her own when she played a nun impregnated by a transvestite in Almodovar’s Oscar-winning

All About My Mother

six years ago but was on the verge of losing forever in the wake of her work in a slew of soulless Hollywood entertainers.

In the wake of that critical triumph of All About My Mother, Cruz made her Hollywood debut in Woman on Top (2000). She went on to feature in several more American films – Gothika, Noel, Walk in the Cloud, All the Pretty Horses, Sahara, Vanilla Sky and Blow – but without quite recapturing the magic of the Spanish-language Open Your Eyes (remade as Vanilla Sky). It is in that context that Cruz’s return to Almodovar territory must be viewed. This is where she belongs.

All About My Mother wasn’t Cruz’s first film with Almodovar. In 1997, she had played a role in Live Flesh.

Almodovar has equated Cruz in Volver with Sophia Loren and Anna Magnani, the most distinctive faces of Italian neo-realist cinema. There isn’t an iota of exaggeration in that.

In Almodovar’s hands, Cruz has the makings of an actress capable of rising to extraordinary heights. Her natural beauty, her hauntingly piercing eyes and her innate ability of merge herself with the characters she plays on screen are attributes that are already beyond doubt.

However, amid the corrupting influence of big-budget Hollywood movies – represented in her filmography by vapid efforts like Sahara, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin and All the Pretty Horses - she has managed to keep her soul from disintegrating.

About three years ago, Cruz proved her mettle in Sergio Castellito’s Italian superhit, Non ti Muovere (Don’t Move). It was the story of a respectable, well-heeled medical practitioner who has a torrid extra-marital affair with a sensuous low-life woman played with stupendous flair by Cruz.

It is pretty obvious that Cruz realises her potential more than anybody else. Her own newly-launched production company will soon fund a film that will mark her return to the Fernando Treuba fold. Treuba was the director of Belle Epoque, the 1992 Spanish film that made Cruz an international star.

The world of non-genre cinema has seen many memorable director and actress combinations – Ingmar Bergman and Liv Ullmann, Louis Malle and Jeanne Moreau, Wong Kar Wai and Maggie Cheung, among others. Just a handful of more films in tandem and Almodovar and Cruz could be right up there with the very best.

First Published: Aug 19, 2006 19:29 IST