Finding oneself


From The Skin I Live In with Antonio Banderas and Elena Anaya

Often, when watching a feature film, the shaping hand of the director is barely noticeable. There’s a certain sameness, particularly with Hollywood stuff, in the tone and treatment of the subject, which itself is often a rehashed or plagiarized storyline. The movie could have been made by any number of directors. There’s no chance of that watching The Skin I Live In (La piel que habito), a most bizarre story of twisted obsession, which recently opened VIFF. Mixing myth, melodrama and psycho-thriller, this erotically charged study in transgression has the distinctive imprint of Spanish auteur Pedro Almodóvar.

A seasoned Antonio Banderas plays a brilliant plastic surgeon testing a synthetic skin on a mysterious, beautiful woman (a lithe Elena Anaya) in the isolation of his luxurious home. We are left guessing as to the details of the relationship between the two characters, creating a fluid and ever-shifting understanding of their interactions and motivations. Early on, we see the doctor admiring the curvaceous, body-suited woman from his bedroom on a huge screen. It’s a decidedly odd doctor-patient relationship. But who is she? Why does he keep her locked up? Is she happy?

The title of the film could as much refer to the way the story unfurls – like peeling an onion – to reveal the answers to these questions and the woman’s relationship with the doctor. The enjoyment of the film is in the storytelling even if the plot is unnecessarily elaborate. It’s best seen without previously watching the trailer which, as usual, gives away far too much or, for that matter, having read the reviews.

Walking the Camino de Santiago, the medieval pilgrim trail across the North of Spain, can be a transformative life experience. In The Way, father-and-son team Emilio Estevez and Martin Sheen follow in the footsteps of hundreds of thousands of others, crossing the 800-kilometre Camino from the Pyrenées on the eastern border, across the grinding flatlands of the Spanish Meseta in central Spain, through the rolling hills of Galicia in the West to arrive at the wonderfully preserved medieval city of Santiago de Compostela.

The drama they shot en route has been described as an “uplifting road-movie-on-foot.” Sheen plays Tom, a grumpy US doctor, who comes to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in France, to collect the remains of his son who has been killed in an accident at the start of the walk (writer-director Estevez also plays Sheen’s on-screen son). Instead of returning home, Tom decides to honour his son by carrying his ashes the length of the Camino. As he walks, Tom finds himself unexpectedly drawn to other pilgrims – played by Deborah Kara Unger, Yorick van Wageningen and James Nesbitt – each of them dealing with their own personal problems, and re-evaluating his “Californian bubble life.” I haven’t seen it myself yet, but a reliable source tells me it captures the spirit of the pilgrimage well.

Finally, congratulations to the VIFF award-winners this year: tense Iranian drama A Separation (Rogers People’s Choice Award); Harry Belafonte biopicSing Your Song (Most Popular Documentary); Hudson Bay set People of a Feather (Environmental Film Audience Award); intense one-night-stand drama Nuit #1 (Shaw Media Award for Best Canadian Feature); energy policy critique Peace Out (NFB Most Popular Canadian Documentary); Tibetan road journey The Sun-Beaten Path (Dragons and Tigers Award for Young Cinema); We Ate the Children Last (Canadian Short Film), and fatherhood comedy Starbuck (Most Popular Canadian Film).

Robert Alstead made the Vancouver documentary You Never Bike He writes at

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