Monday, April 25, 2011

Habitación en Roma [Room in Rome] Movie Review

This review was written in May 2010, but never published because I was awaiting a possible US release, which never happened.

As a director of the sensual, Julio Medem has never shied away from on screen sex and nudity. In his best and most well-known film, Sex and Lucía, Paz Vega was made into a star by stripping down and acting her way through several compromising positions. His latest offering, Habitación en Roma (Room in Rome), has the two principal characters naked or having sex or both through the majority of its 110 minutes.

These two characters are the spritely, petite and beautiful Spanish Alba (Elena Anaya) and the gorgeous leggy blonde Russian Natasha (Natasha Yarovenko). If that’s not reason enough for every heterosexual male to run for the nearest cinema showing this movie, then perhaps I’ve not explained it well.

We meet Alba and Natasha at the end of a night out in Rome after they’ve met and made a connection. The persuasive Alba convinces Natasha to join her in her hotel room for a final drink. Once there it’s not long before they disrobe and lie on the bed together. Natasha is hesitant, insisting on her preference for men. Alba senses something more, but proceeds cautiously. Then she falls asleep and Natasha leaves before she does something she might regret.

But wait! We’re only 15 minutes into the movie. Ah yes, Natasha left her mobile and has to return, allowing another opportunity for seduction. It’s not long before they’re in bed together and trading personal histories, which may or may not be entirely or partially true, or maybe invented. Alba’s story is that her mother basically sold her into a Saudi royal harem and returned to Spain, leaving her daughter to make her escape after getting pregnant and then having an abortion in Athens. Natasha is an actress, or maybe a tennis player and she either has a twin or says she does to represent her fantasy double. Part of the pleasure of watching the movie is supposed to be getting caught up with these two women. But the secretive games they play feel more forced than natural, a way to fill running time with something other than sex and play (don’t fret, men, they are usually naked during these conversations).

I keep mentioning the nudity as if that’s reason to see the movie. Certainly for many people it will be, but Medem has a way of photographing sex and naked bodies that is assured. It doesn’t usually feel exploitative because cinematographer Alex Catalán’s camera doesn’t specifically seek out particular parts of the female anatomy.

Alba and Natasha have only one night together before they return to their respective countries and remember their blissful night together forever, without a hope of ever seeing each other again. As the dawn approaches what will happen? There is lots of talk of love and loss in their ‘real’ lives and in the events occurring in this hotel room, on this night in The Eternal City.

It is the connection to Rome through which Medem, who also wrote the screenplay, instills the film with something other than lesbian sex. The map they use to point out the location of Natasha’s hotel in relation to Alba’s is a map of Caesar’s Rome. In essence they are tracing their own existence over the history that lives below and all around that marvelous city. Additionally there is something to be gleaned from the way their tracing fingers can connect the two hotels on a single surface. This is mirrored when they view each other’s homes (a small island in Russia; San Sebastian in the north of Spain) through a Google Earth type program. Like the map of Rome, they can trace immediately from one location to another in a single fluid motion, emphasizing the way the world is connected and the mystery of how two people from distant countries can meet in a third and have a strong romantic connection beyond reason.

In addition to the interconnectedness of points on a map, Medem wants the real meat of the story to be the permanent impressions we leave on this planet and on other people. This is illustrated at its most superficial by the evidence of Alba’s lover’s children on the roof terrace as viewed in satellite images and in the final act of Natasha and Alba – hanging a white bed sheet from a flagpole on the hotel room’s balcony which is finally revealed as visible in a satellite photo – but at its most subtle and cathartic in Alba’s grief over a terrible loss that only comes out after watching an old video on her mobile. In this respect Alba is the true protagonist with Natasha merely as a foil to provide her with a joy she’s not felt in some time. This is perhaps one of film’s shortcomings because the two women should be equal in weight and pathos.

But Medem bites off a bit more than he can chew, I think, by also including some tenuous connections to the Renaissance art that adorns the room and one particularly overwrought bit of symbolism toward the end. Natasha, who has as one of her identities that of a Masters student in Italian art history, claims that her favorite Renaissance humanist said, “The artist must always know what he is representing,” or words to that effect. It would have been nice if Medem himself had chosen to live by that maxim. Because despite a very earnest attempt to make a strong statement about our place on the earth, however fleeting, Medem mostly succeeds in creating something too simple in the complexity of the themes he’s aiming for, while at the same time a little bit pretentious.

And in the end much of the film still ends up feeling a lot like the ultimate adolescent fantasy of a female slumber party, complete with beautiful women engaged in casual conversation while completely nude. Don’t get me wrong, it’s lovely to look at, but doesn’t always serve the story.

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