'Barcelona': A Destination for Passion

"Vicky Cristina Barcelona" is as exhilarating, captivating and enjoyable as a summer romance in an exotic city.

Woody Allen's latest comedy about the vagaries of passion, set in Barcelona, shows that lovely Spanish city off to its best advantage, just as it does its lead actors.

A witty, engrossing and well-crafted musing on the capricious nature of love, the film also is a valentine to the city, which is almost an additional character. Its visual splendors are displayed in a sun-dappled light with special regard for its striking art and architecture, particularly the work of Antoni Gaudi. Allen seems to have been reinvigorated since he began filming in Europe.

The title derives from the names of two American women traveling in Spain. Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) are best friends, with vastly different attitudes about relationships. Vicky approaches love pragmatically and is engaged to a stolid and decent American man (Chris Messina). Cristina is a free spirit, always searching for transcendent love. After attending an art exhibit, the women meet a painter, Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem) who invites them to the town of Oviedo for a weekend of fine food, wine and amorous fun. Vicky is put off, but Cristina is entranced. Of course, things don't transpire the way we expect.

We learn about Juan Antonio's marriage to the gorgeous but unstable Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz) through the accounts of others. A lot has been written about the ménage à trois involving Bardem, Cruz and Johansson, but the story is more substantive than sensational.

Bardem and Cruz are perfect, and their chemistry is palpable. Johansson is a bit bland, but her attitude is appropriate to play an aimless soul. Hall, who sounds like the young Mia Farrow, does a fine job.

The yearnings and entanglements of the characters are engrossing, and provocative questions are raised about love. Like a glass of sangria, "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" is a zesty and luscious film to be savored.

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