Twenty-eight-year-old helmer Ramon Salazar's idiosyncratic femme-based drama "Stones" adds his name to the short list of Spanish helmers to watch. Fine perfs from a hand-picked cast, compassion and obsessive attention to wry detail are among the hallmarks of this project.

Twenty-eight-year-old helmer Ramon Salazar’s idiosyncratic femme-based drama “Stones” adds his name to the short list of Spanish helmers to watch. Fine perfs from a hand-picked cast, compassion and obsessive attention to wry detail are among the hallmarks of a project that, to its benefit, starts with characters and builds a story around them rather than the other way around. Helmer’s 1999 short “Hongos” won close to 50 awards at various fests and gained a cult following. At a single stroke, and despite some local critics’ unwillingness to give pic its due, the confidence and accomplishment of this $2 million feature debut hoist Salazar into the Spanish frontline. Further fest showings are likely and offshore arthouses could do well with pic.

Enigmatically titled pic dovetails the stories of five Madrid women. There’s simple-minded Anita (“Hongos” heroine Monica Cervera), who paints pictures of herself with her little dog and stares up at passing airplanes; her mother, Adela (Antonia San Juan), who runs a brothel; wealthy, high-strung Isabel (Angela Molina), in the throes of divorce and a devotee of shoe shopping; fragile shoeshop employee and nightclub dancer Leire (Najwa Nimri), who is breaking up with her boyfriend Kun (Daniele Liotti); and sardonic taxi driver Maricarmen (Vicky Pena), who is struggling to bring up Victor (Santiago Crespo) and cokehead Daniela (Lola Duenas), the children of her dead lover.

The stories run parallel, with brief points of contact, a la “Short Cuts” or “Magnolia.” Adela employs Joaquin (Enrique Alcides) to look after Anita, leaving her free to be slowly seduced by Argentine businessman Leonardo (Rodolfo de Souza), who teaches Adela how to dance and offers her a vision of a better world. Anita, in her own way, falls in love with Joaquin, provoking Adela to a jealous rage.

Isabel’s TV presenter friend Martina (Maria Casal) recommends a chiropodist (Spanish dancer Nacho Duato), and he becomes Isabel’s surrogate shrink. The only character with no love interest is the gutsy Maricarmen, whose struggle to come to terms with Daniela is displayed in sometimes painful detail.

“Stones” has no particular message other than that it’s hard to settle down and be happy. But from this cliched premise it shows, in a thoroughly contempo way, that it’s possible to make a serious point in a light-hearted way.

Local crix have been quick to make the Almodovar comparisons, and insofar as pic deals with women with sympathy and perception, they’re right.

But the hue of melodrama that hangs over Almodovar’s work is absent here, as is his tendency toward exaggeration. Feminists also have wondered why all these women need a man to be happy — but the “Stones” men, straight or gay, also need partners to make them happy. The cameo from Manuel de Blas as Adela’s assistant, Ramon, is eloquent in this respect.

San Juan, who’s also featured in “Hongos” and who made her mark in Almodovar’s “All About My Mother,” shines again, her character a subtly drawn combination of fear, dignity and need. Nimri’s distinctive, whispering delivery has irritated in the past, but here ties in well with Leire’s vulnerability.

Molina’s wasted beauty and responsiveness is as watchable as ever; Pena confirms her reputation as one of Spain’s more underrated and underused thesps; and Cervera, finding all sorts of nuances in a character who can barely speak, is the big find as Anita.

Pic has many quirky, well-observed moments — Anita’s crush on Enrique is shown by her erasing all the dogs from her paintings — but it is occasionally overstated: A dinner party thrown by Isabel is too overblown in its parody of nouveau-riche habits. More seriously, the film has a structural defect that comes from being too eager to please; in the final reel, the various stories slot together rather too neatly.

Lensing is lively, and is in part a visual homage to the vibrancy of Madrid. Lucio Godoy’s haunting score rubs ups against femme-based songs from the likes of Ani di Franco and Natalie Merchant.

Stones

Spain

Production

A Hispano Foxfilm release of an Alquimia Cinema/Ensueno Films/ TeleMadrid production, in association with Via Digital, Antena 3. (International sales: Summit Entertainment, L.A.) Produced by Francisco Ramos. Directed, written by Ramon Salazar.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), David Carretero; editor, Teresa Font; music, Lucio Godoy; art director, Montse Sanz; sound (Dolby Digital), Mark van der Willigen. Reviewed at Cines Acteon, Madrid, Feb. 4, 2002. (In Berlin Film Festival -- competing.) Running time: 134 MIN.

With

Adela - Antonia San Juan Leire - Najwa Nimri Maricarmen - Vicky Pena Isabel - Angela Molina Anita - Monica Cervera Leonardo - Rodolfo de Souza Kun - Daniele Liotti Chiropodist - Nacho Duato Joaquin - Enrique Alcides Javier - Andres Gertrudix Daniela - Lola Duenas Victor - Santiago Crespo Martina - Maria Casal Ramon - Manuel de Blas
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