Before it lays on several plot turns too many, Antonio Serrano's "Lucia, Lucia" concocts a crafty marriage of detective genre and feminist liberation parable in telling the story of an author searching for her missing husband. Film is the best vehicle for incandescent Spanish star Cecilia Roth since Almodovar's "All About My Mother."

Before it lays on several plot turns too many, Antonio Serrano’s “Lucia, Lucia” concocts a crafty marriage of detective genre and feminist liberation parable in telling the story of an author searching for her missing husband. Part invention and part based on Rosa Montero’s popular novel “La hija del Canibal,” film is the best vehicle for incandescent Spanish star Cecilia Roth since Almodovar’s “All About My Mother.” Pic claimed Mexico’s third highest B.O. opening on record earlier this year, and U.S. distrib Fox Searchlight’s hopes to cash in on recent commercial Mexican wave should be reasonably met, buttressed by solid vid performance.

Following up his tyro hit, “Sex, Shame and Tears,” Serrano appears in love with the possibilities of his sweeping widescreen camera, the visual tricks inherent in a character’s (imagined) altering identity and storytelling that begins to resemble that of a drunk raconteur who’s too far gone to know when to stop.

Lucia (Roth) describes in sometimes breathless voiceover how she and her husband Ramon’s trip to Rio was dashed when, just before take-off, Ramon vanished in the Mexico City airport. Admitting that she has peppered her account to the viewer as well as the cops with fibs, Lucia justifies lying by saying she makes up children’s stories for a living.

Like a guardian angel, elderly Spanish Civil War vet and neighbor Felix (Carlos Alvarez Novoa) shows up at Lucia’s door, offering to help in her search for her husband. Lucia soon gets a ransom call from a shady group called “Workers Pride,” and a follow-up note from Ramon instructing her to withdraw a bevy of pesos from a safe deposit box. This sets up the first of several action pieces, where Lucia and Felix take the cash and run into robbers in their building.

Entangled in the fracas is young, virile neighbor Adrian (Kuno Becker), who quickly becomes fast friends with Lucia and Felix, forming pic’s central multi-generational trio of adventurers.

A botched ransom delivery in a busy department store is followed by more pesky activity, ranging from semi-competent detectives dashing about to uninvited visits from Lucia’s mother and father (Margarita Isabel, Hector Ortega), both aging soap opera stars. None of this helps Lucia, growing gradually unhinged with fear. Things get worse when the cops accuse Lucia of knowing about Ramon’s years of embezzling funds as a mid-level treasury department staffer.

Ultimately, Lucia stops trusting everyone — even Adrian, whose amorous moves on her finally lead to a lusty tryst. The crazy-quilt misadventures, red herrings and plotting curlicues finally amount to far more noise than light, rendering pic more exhausting than electric.

Yet, Roth appears to be having tremendous fun. Though the scenario compromises its feminism by having Lucia need the help of men to fulfill her quest, the movie has Roth’s Lucia opening her eyes to a world of possibilities (she dares to wish that Ramon won’t appear), and it is a thing of beauty to behold.

In a brilliant and precise reversal of Hollywood’s current casting game of matching older male stars with younger female starlets, Roth takes hold of the mature end of a love affair with the ultra-handsome Becker and steers a course of vivid sexual and emotional power.

Balancing off the debuting Becker’s wrinkle-free youth is salty vet Novoa, bringing rough, leathery texture to a role that could have come off as hopelessly cute. Support is a chain of actors who give their all.

Opticals, split-screens, 360-degree pans and other devices abound on screen, for a bit of show-offy effect. Too much of Nacho Mastretta’s score is illustrative, but Jorge Garcia’s superb editing and Brigitte Broch’s design lend maximum pop.

Lucia, Lucia

Mexico-Spain

Production

A 20th Century Fox release (in U.S.) of a Fox Searchlight Pictures/Conaculta/ Foprocine/Instituto Mexicano de Cinematografia/Fondo Ibermedia presentation of a Titan Prods. and Argos Communications picture in co-production with Lola Films and Total Films. Produced by Epigmenio Ibarra, Carlos Payan, Christian Valdelievre, Inna Payan, Matthias Ehrenberg. Co-producer, Andres Vicente Gomez. Directed by Antonio Serrano. Screenplay by Serrano, based on the novel "La hija del canibal" (The Cannibal's Daughter) by Rosa Montero.

Crew

Camera (Estudios Churubusco Azteca color, widescreen), Xavier Perez Grobet; editor, Jorge Garcia; music, Nacho Mastretta; art director, Brigitte Broch; set decorator, Francisca Maira; costume designer, Maria Estela Fernandez; sound (Dolby Digital), Evelia Cruz; supervising sound editor, Simone Petrillo; special effects coordinator, Alejandro Vasquez; associate producers, Jorge Albajar, Carlos Creel, Cesar Montemayor, Eduardo Negrete Franco, Gervasio Negrete Franco, Marcela Ramirez, Mauricio Rios, Julio Serrano, Manuel Serrano; assistant director, Manuel Hinojosa; casting, Ana Urquidi. Reviewed at 20th Century Fox Studios screening room, L.A., July 11, 2003. (In L.A. Latino Film Festival.) MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 109 MIN.

With

Lucia - Cecilia Roth Felix - Carlos Alvarez Novoa Adrian - Kuno Becker Inspector Garcia - Javier Diaz Duenas Lucia's Mom - Margarita Isabel Old Wehner - Max Kerlow Mr. Wehner - Mario Ivan Martinez Ramon - Jose Elias Moreno The Cannibal - Hector Ortega
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