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  Jamón Jamón hamming it up
Year: 1992
Director: Bigas Luna
Stars: Stefania Sandrelli, Penélope Cruz, Javier Bardem, Anna Galiena, Jordi Mollà
Genre: Comedy, Drama, Sex, WeirdoBuy from Amazon
Rating:  6 (from 2 votes)
Review: This steamy, soap opera was a breakthrough hit for Spanish filmmaker Bigas Luna, gaining him critical and popular acclaim across Europe. However, its indifferent reception in America - the mix of camp melodrama, surrealism, social satire and earthy, defiant sexuality bewildering many - has meant his films aren’t widely distributed. So he doesn’t enjoy the same English language appreciation as his countryman, Pedro Almodóvar. If one mentions that Penélope Cruz and Javier Bardem are frequently naked here, hopefully more viewers will give this a try and seek out other work by this engaging, iconoclastic filmmaker.

Our heroine Sylvia (Penélope Cruz) is pregnant. Boyfriend, Jose Luis (Jordi Mollà) is heir to a men’s underwear manufacturers’ empire, and his bitchy mum, Carmen (Anna Galiena) doesn’t want her precious boy gallivanting with the daughter of brothel owner, Conchita (Stefania Sandrelli). It seems Conchita was once intimate with Carmen’s husband, but Jose Luis frequents her brothel too, masturbating while his future mother-in-law performs a bizarre act with a parrot. Carmen assigns underwear stud/nude bullfighter/ham enthusiast, Raul (Javier Bardem - introduced with a big, close-up on his bulging groin) to seduce Sylvia, but the big lug falls for the winsome heroine. Sylvia and Raul plan to run away, but Carmen won’t give up her boy toy. It all ends the only way these things can: with two men battering each other with giant hambones - and if you saw that coming, you’re a liar.

If heart-rending tragedy, raunchy sex (including Sylvia and Raul’s hilariously overwrought coupling), throwaway surrealism (a lizard crawling out of a broken doll’s eye), bizarre dream sequences and characters bouncing in and out of love like human ping-pong balls, don’t appeal - then Jamón Jamón (it means: ham. Flesh - the desire for and exploitation of in all its forms being the dominant theme) isn’t for you. Those who appreciate outrageous strangeness mixed with pathos and humanity (Like Almodóvar’s finest films) will love it. Plot-wise it’s as convoluted as any tele-novella, but Luna lampoons soap opera conventions and Latin machismo. While men strut, women make the real, life-changing decisions. Skilfully photographed with magnificent vistas, Luna makes careful use of symbolism, foreshadowing later events in his story. Nicola Piovani supplies a hauntingly beautiful score. Snatches of early Nineties dance music may sound dated, but add to the overheated tone. Penélope Cruz is wide-eyed and appealingly feisty in her star-making role, while Javier Bardem makes a magnificent bastard - explored further in his next collaboration with Luna: Golden Balls (1993).

One flaw is that viewers genuinely caught up in Sylvia’s tragic story are liable to feel a little cheated by the end when it’s all revealed as one, big joke. Tragicomedy is delicate balance, which could be why some audiences were turned off. Nevertheless, Luna’s conclusion offers a fantastic, final gag. As tragedy strikes, credits roll and the music swells, a noisy shepherd drives his flock right through the dramatic climax. Hilarious, ridiculous and inventive, Jamón Jamón remains a true original.
Reviewer: Andrew Pragasam

 

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