Argentine helmer Luis Puenzo focuses on matters of the heart with the ambitiously conceived, albeit borderline pretentious, "The Whore and the Whale." An intimate study of one woman's spiritual regeneration, warmth and passion are sacrificed to the overwrought bipartite plot, with the pic starting to look stranded after the first 90 minutes.

Argentine helmer Luis Puenzo, best known for political fare like 1985’s Oscar-winning “The Official Story,” instead focuses on matters of the heart with the ambitiously conceived, albeit borderline pretentious, “The Whore and the Whale.” An impressively crafted, visually spectacular big-budgeter spanning 70 years, pic seeks to combine epic sweep with an intimate study of one woman’s spiritual regeneration, and almost succeeds. However, warmth and passion are sacrificed to the overwrought bipartite plot, with the pic starting to look stranded after the first 90 minutes. Argentinian B.O. was solid following April release; offshore, “Whale” could beach up in the occasional non-Hispanic territory and at fests.

Pic shuttles between the early 1930s and the early 2000s, when thirtysomething Spanish novelist Vera (Aitana Sanchez-Gijon), suffering from an existential crisis as well as from breast cancer, comes across photos taken in the ’30s. Commissioned by publisher and ex-b.f. Jordi (Pep Munne) to write about them, she takes the chance to escape and heads off to Argentina in search of the story.

In a Buenos Aires hospital, Vera has a mastectomy and meets an old woman, Matilde (Lydia Lamaison), who is visited by her son, Ernesto (Eduard Nuskiewicz). An uneasy romance gets under way between Ernesto and Vera, intensifying when Vera realizes she is more ill than she thought.

The 1930s story deals with the troubled passion between Argentinian photographer Emilio (Leonardo Sbaraglia) and Spanish prostitute Lola (Merce Llorens), exiled to Argentina. Work takes Emilio to Patagonia and to the brothel-club of blind tango musician Suarez (Miguel Angel Sola), living there with his daughter, the younger Matilde (Belen Blanco) and sundry other colorful characters.

The passion between Emilio and Lola starts to fade as Suarez makes his advances on her and they set up a menage-a-trois, Emilio all the time snapping the photos which Vera, 70 years later, will discover.

A whale is washed up on the nearby beach and becomes a photographic backdrop for Emilio; 70 years later, the same whale beaches up at the same place — a non-too subtle metaphor for Vera vis-a-vis Lola, with whom she starts to identify.

Sanchez-Gijon’s role is probably her meatiest to date, and she does well by it, though perhaps she is over-controlled at times. Later on, as a sick woman deciding to celebrate her sexuality, she struggles to find the right register.

Sola turns in a delightfully over-the-top perf as the dissolute, lecherous Suarez, Sbaraglia enjoys himself as the dandyish romancer Emilio, and Merce Llorens plays Lola with engaging vitality. But none of them, Sanchez-Gijon apart, ever wriggle free of stereotype. The role of Jordi is largely surplus to requirements, and too much of the last half hour of pic is given over to the dull revival of the relationship between him and Vera.

Exactly what pic is saying, apart from “history repeats itself,” is not clear, with the medium triumphing over the message; script would have benefited from shedding some of its bulky metaphorical baggage. Parallels between the two stories, and the similarities between Vera and Lola, are sometimes strained, as is the plot — Vera turning up in a hospital bed right next to the aging Matilde is farfetched and, since it’s so key, damages much of what comes later. Pic never quite loses the sense of being two different scripts that have been fused together, and although it’s cleverly done, it’s not organic.

Lensing, despite the apparent feminist theme of how much control women have over their own bodies, sometimes comes over as voyeuristic. (Pic features full-frontal nudity in several scenes.) Generally, visuals are a treat throughout, with Spanish d.p. Jose Luis Alcaine coaxing maximum atmospherics from a variety of settings ranging from the beautiful Patagonian shoreline to the shadowy interiors of Suarez’s club. Music, often featured in striking dance set pieces, is mostly attractive tango fare.

Technical effects, particularly of the 50-foot-long whale, are impressive.

The Whore and the Whale

Spain - Argentina

Production

A Wanda Vision release (in Spain) of a Wanda Vision/Patagonik Film Group/Historias Cinemtaograficas production in association with TVE, Canal+. (International sales: Wanda Vision, Madrid). Produced by Jose Maria Morales, Pablo Bossi, Luis Puenzo. Directed by Luis Puenzo. Screenplay, Puenzo, Lucia Puenzo, Angeles Gonzalez Sinde.

Crew

Camera (color, B&W), Jose Luis Alcaine; editor, Hugo Primero; music, Andres Goldstein, Daniel Tarrab; art director, Mercedes Alfonsin; sound (Dolby Digital), Abbate & Diaz. Reviewed at Ideal Yelmo Cineplex, Madrid, May 9, 2004. (In Malaga Film Festival -- competing.) Running time: 127 MIN.

With

Vera - Aitana Sanchez-Gijon Emilio - Leonardo Sbaraglia Suarez - Miguel Angel Sola Lola - Merce Llorens Jordi - Pep Munne Ernesto - Eduard Nuskiewicz Matilde - Belen Blanco Matilde (old woman) - Lydia Lamaison

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