Room in Rome

Typically challenging, potentially divisive item from Spanish auteur Julio Medem.

Two troubled young women spend a night of sex, reflection, psychoanalysis and more sex in “Room in Rome,” a typically challenging, potentially divisive item from Spanish auteur Julio Medem, and a partial return to form after the commercial and critical failure of “Chaotic Ana.” Touching on many of his old themes, with a heavy dose of technology, pic is beautifully crafted, superbly played and sometimes pretentious; as always with Medem, there’s the sense that he’s more interested in his ideas than in his people. Project’s obvious sexiness and good buzz could foster a Medem revival in offshore arthouses.

Dark, perky Spaniard Alba (Elena Anaya) and tall, blonde Russian Natasha (Natasha Yarovenko ) are spending their last night in Rome. Alba suggests Natasha come up to her hotel room and, after some resistance, Natasha agrees: Within five minutes, they’re making love. The sex will become increasingly unfettered through the night as they explore their fantasies.

The two women still know nothing about one another, so Alba tells her life story. As a child, she was abandoned by her mother to an Arab sheikh who later got her pregnant. But in this film about invented identities, question marks hover over much of what the women tell one another.

As communication, sex proves less problematic and more fun than talking, and they return to it each time their situation becomes awkward. When speaking, the women circle each other warily: It eventually becomes clear that both are emotionally damaged. But Natasha’s backstory, about her Renaissance art-scholar sister and her abuse at the hands of her father, remains an open question until the final reel.

The women show each other photos of their houses, via computer; Medem seems fascinated by our techno-based ability to condense space and time, and the intimacies of this single hotel room are repeatedly contrasted with the vastnesses of the earth and even of space.

In keeping with one of Medem’s pet themes — the self-sufficiency of women — neither Natasha nor Alba has had positive experiences with men. Indeed, it’s a man who represents the comic relief, in the form of Max (Enrico Lo Verso), a sexy, opera-singing waiter who brings a hot cucumber to their room, apologizing that the vibrator Alba ordered was not available.

The script’s desire to show us just how emotionally open these two women are forces them to overanalyze their emotions, which ironically places a barrier between them and the audience. Alba is spontaneous, carefree and engaging, and Anaya, in a career-best perf, exudes a natural charm that Medem allows to come to the fore. The lens-friendly Yarovenko, as the more cautious Natasha, acquits herself well in her first leading role.

“Your skin is like the Russian steppe,” Alba tells Natasha at one point, and it’s unclear whether Medem is parodying Alba’s tendency to romanticize or simply penning dodgy dialogue. Indeed, the helmer’s typical earnestness has a tendency to lead him into the risible, as when the two women belt out an over-extended version of “Volare” in the shower, or when the camera zooms in on an image of Cupid just as things reach an emotional crescendo.

Visually sumptuous with warm, rich palettes that find their echo in the Leon Battista Alberti painting over the bed, pic contains something of interest in practically every shot, as the women arrange their limbs into attractive patterns on crumpled bedsheets. Lenser Alex Catalan is also not averse some daring camera movement, at one point exploring the beautifully decorated room as the women make out.

Jocelyn Pook’s appealingy bouncy, tango-based score sounds appropriately fresh and sexy, while the catchy folk tune “Loving Strangers,” by up-and-coming Spanish singer-songwriter Russian Red, is neatly incorporated as a theme song.

Apart from English (which is almost too flawlessly spoken), there is also Spanish, Italian, Russian and Basque dialogue. Film is lightly based on Matias Bize’s “In Bed” (2005).

Room in Rome

Spain

Production

A Paramount release of a Morena Films production, in association with Alicia Produce, with the participation of TVE, Canal Plus. (International sales: Wild Bunch, Paris.) Produced by Alvaro Longoria. Executive producer, Julio Medem. Directed, written by Julio Medem.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Alex Catalan; editor, Nacho Ruiz Capillas; music, Jocelyn Pook; art director, Montse Sanz; sound (Dolby Digital), Polo Aledo, Juan Borrell, Nicolas de Poulpiquet. Reviewed at Malaga Film Festival (noncompeting), April 22, 2010. Running time: 109 MIN.

With

(English, Spanish, Italian, Russian, Basque dialogue)

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