Based on a bestseller by Spanish novelist Almudena Grandes, “Malena Is a Name From a Tango” is a well-intentioned, provocatively moralizing women’s pic that ends up as second-rate melodrama. A strong central perf by Ariadna Gil (“Belle Epoque”) and an affecting exploration of a mother-child relationship are among the worthwhile things about the film. But despite quality production values, a rising star in Gil and strong opening B.O. at home, producer Gerardo Herrero’s third pic as a director is unlikely to make offshore auds dance, given its lack of bignames and locally specific version of feminism.
Pic is apparently directed at Spanish women brought up at the end of the repressive Franco dictatorship who are struggling to adapt to a newly liberalized society. It centers on sulky Malena (Gil), a victimized ugly duckling from a well-to-do family who spends her time trying to wriggle free of the influence of perfect older sister Reina (legit actress Marta Belaustegui, playing to the back row in her firstpic). The family has a troubled history, and there’s much Catholic talk of “bad blood.”
Malena tries to carve herself a niche by hating her sister, sleeping around, swearing a lot and keeping a diary. Her rebelliousness, however, is only skin deep. After ill-fated relationships with unappealing hardbodies Fernando (Carlos Lopez) and Agustin (Jesus Ryman), she ends up married to and having a kid by decent-but-dull Santiago (Luis Fernando Alves). He then goes off and has an affair with Reina.
After this predictable development, the film picks up slightly with an exploration of the relationship between Malena and her son, before concluding — apparently with no sense of irony — that the only way women can achieve self-realization is by having sex with men they’ve met 10 minutes earlier. Malena, it seems, has learned nothing from her premarital experiences.
A movie that appears to want to celebrate womanhood ends up confirming machista values. Climax is a tearful, dramatically unjustified fight between Malena and her sister.
Pic has the feel of a family album of life crises as the plot rushes from one of Malena’s errors to another without allowing any relationship to develop between the character and the viewer. The contents of Malena’s diary, for example, are withheld from the audience, and the dialogue by Senel Paz (who co-scripted the witty “Strawberry and Chocolate”) lacks the subtlety and tenderness that the subject demands.
Performances are all able, and tech credits, as always in Herrero’s movies, are excellent.