The locale isn't identified, but it looks to be Extremadura, the dry, impoverished western province which was the birthplace of most of those hungry conquistadores. In fact, Raul (Javier Bardem), the hero/anti-hero of the tale, works as a delivery man for Hernan Cortes and Brothers Conquistador Ham. Luna is not a sublte filmmaker. It soon becomes clear that the dried, oblong hams are phallic symbols, and conquistador means, well, conquistador.
But as this opening scene of deslolation ends, we see that Raul wants to conquer the world via bullfighting. In the classic tradition, Raul practices his passes with the muleta while a friend pushes a bull's head mounted on a bicycle frame. I'm happy to report that Bardem's capework is graceful and competent. After Raul bellows to his friend that he will one day be the most famous bullfighter in the world, Luna cuts from a shot of Raul's bulging crotch to a men's underwear factory, where the beautiful young Sylvia (Penelope Cruz) works. We then follow her as she returns home, where her drunken and estranged father is trying to break into the house, and then to the scene in which she confesses to her young lover, Jose Luis (Jordi Molla), that she is pregnant. Still working in the most obvious possible manner, Luna has them sitting under one of the bull-silouhette billboards you see all over Spain.
Jose Luis takes the news well, and he vows to marry her -- even though, as the son of the underwear factory owners, he's well above Sylvia's social class (her mom is, sigh, the town prositute). He can handle his nasty snob of a mother, he says, then begins sucking on Sylvia's breasts. They taste almost as good as her Spanish omelettes, the ones with onion and garlic.??
A nasty tale then unfolds. His mother, Conchita (Stefania Sandrelli), violently opposes the wedding. She's still upset that her husband, Manuel (Juan Diego), used to avail himself of Sylvia's mother. Despite the film's almost sentimental portrayal of Sylvia as an apparently decent young woman, one who would love to let her father back into the house, but who is strong enough not to, Conchita is sure that Sylvia is only after the family fortune. Convinced of her vulgarity, Syliva hires Raul (who has become a brief-filling model for their underwear line) to seduce Sylvia away from Jose Luis. You won't be surprised to learn that mom then decides she wants to sample Raul herself, or that she then becomes possessive of him, and regrets siccing him on Sylvia. You might be surprised to see Jose Luis talking Sylvia's mother into one last go, or at least that this woman who seems to truly love her daughter would consent, prostitute or no prostitute.
I was certainly surprised when Sylvia falls for the dense and unpleasant Raul, especially since she first successfully fends him off.
his is where the film falls apart. Sure, Sylvia might go for someone like Raul, especially since Jose Luis doesn't have the balls (in the film's ubiquitous phrase) to stand up to his mother. But I would have first liked to see Raul show something more than a thick head and crotch.
Actually, Raul and his bullfight companion do show more in one rather novel scene. In good torero tradition, the two sneak onto a bull ranch at night, to practice their passes. That in itself wasn't a daring enough notion for Luna, who has them strip and face the bull naked, literally waggling their cocks at the animal. This is actually a notion steeped in bullfight lore. According to legend, the great Juan Belmonte used to take his clothes off, swim a river, and practice his close-to-the-animal passes which began modern bullfighting. But he took his clothes off so they wouldn't get wet, not to make the inevitably unhappy comparison between his genitalia and that of el senor toro.
Yes, this is an interesting scene. Whoever did the nighttime capework knew his stuff, and he certainly gives new meaning to the term pase natural. But Luna hasn't integrated it into his story. His take on bullfighting doesn't nearly as deep as did Almodovar's in Matador.
This film couldn't have been shot this way under Franco, but the story itself, and its bleak setting, seem, to the outside observor at least, to be far removed from the "new" Spain. With its layers of Oedipal entanglements, and pessimistic view of human nature, it's a throwback to the vision of novelist Jose` Camilio Cela's The Family of Pascual Duarte (among others), in which Pascual must bite off his mother's nipple before he can escape her.
It's of interest that Luna wants to show us this Spain still exists. But his vision of it is so facile that he doesn't convince it actually does.