Monday, December 20, 2010

Vicky Cristina Barcelona -- sex, love and meaning

Director: Woody Allen, 2008. (R)

Vicky Cristina Barcelona tells the story of one summer and the changes it brings to two close friends, Vicky (Rebecca Hall, The Town) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson, Iron Man 2) as they vacation in the beautiful Spanish city of Barcelona. An adult comedy drama, it overflows with sex: adulterous sex, pre-marital sex, lesbian sex, even menage-a-trois sex, but very little marital sex. Thankfully, little is actually shown on screen, but the film becomes a vehicle for Woody Allen's philosophy on sex, love and the meaning of life. Despite my disagreements with all of these, I found the film itself enjoyable with some beautiful scenery and cinematography.

The opening scene, even before the credits, is crucial to understanding the story and setting the question that Allen wants to address. It shows Vicky and Cristina in a cab traveling from the Barcelona airport into the city. An unnamed narrator (who is never explained and whose presence feels awkward at times) gives us the background in an extended monolog in the opening lines:
The two best friends had been close since college and shared the same tastes and opinions on most matters, yet when it came to the subject of love, it would be hard to find two more dissimilar viewpoints. Vicky had no tolerance for pain and no lust for combat. She was grounded and realistic. Her requirements in a man were seriousness and stability. She had become engaged to Doug because he was decent and successful and understood the beauty of commitment. . . . Cristina, on the other hand, expected something very different out of love. She had reluctantly accepted suffering as an inevitable component of deep passion, and was resigned to putting her feelings at risk.
Here, then, is the crux of the movie: what is the nature of love? And as an ancillary question, how does love relate to marriage?

In choosing two protagonists, Allen presents polar opposite approaches to love. Vicky offers the realistic perspective, seeking a love that is serious, stable and safe. She wants commitment. Biblical love is all of these things are more. Moreover, marriage is indeed a commitment, and so must not be entered rashly or thoughtlessly. God hates divorce (Mal. 2:16), so a wedding presents a gateway to a life-long commitment. Vicky is correct in her assessment, but it is insufficient. Love is so much more. Cristina, on the other hand, eschews the rational and logical, preferring the emotional approach. She desires a love that is exciting even experimental, opting for seduction rather than safety in her man. Certainly, we want love to encompass some of these, but not at the expense of marriage and commitment.

Cristina certainly understands one aspect of love: suffering. True love, agape love, is sacrificial and giving (Jn. 3:16). Love can never be safe. If we love someone we risk pain and rejection. By opening ourselves up to share our deepest thoughts and secrets we may be hurt. But the aphorism "nothing ventured, nothing gained" underscores the adventure that love encompasses.

One night, while eating dinner after attending an art show, a sexy, handsome artist Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem, No Country for Old Men) approaches their dinner table. He invites them to accompany him to Ovieda for a weekend of sightseeing and sex. Such spontaneity appeals to Cristina but not to Vicky. Yet both accept and find themselves walking a path that will change them. Cristina's animal attraction to Juan Antonio eventually results in them moving in together, once back in Barcelona. Vicky's one-night stand with him, causes her to question everything she believes in. Who is really in love with whom?

When Juan Antonio's tempetuous ex-wife, Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz, who won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her work here) shows up one night, Juan Antonio allows her to stay in their home, the home he now shares with Cristina. So begins a threesome. Indeed, Cristina becomes the one who is able to harmonize the troubled love relationship between the two Spanish artists. More then this, though, she experiments with love with both of them, embodying a tolerance that Woody Allen clearly communicates as positive and appropriate.

Cristina delivers this tolerance openly in a cafe with Vicky and her fiance, while explaining her sexual adventures to them. But tolerance is not always positive. Sometimes it is simply permissive, accepting of sin. The Bible describes lesbian sex as unnatural (Rom. 1:26). Furthermore, most would agree with the biblical view of sex as between two people not three. Cristina's tolerance is really an intolerance of truth.

One scene gets to the heart of Woody Allen's views on love and life. The three chief characters are in a church in Ovieda, early in the film. Juan Antonio says, "Maria Elena used to say that only unfulfilled love can be romantic." This is patently false. Fulfilled love in marriage can be romantic, though it does not always happen. We must work in our marriages to retain the rosebud of romance so it can blossom even as the wrinkles appear on our faces.

The scene continues with Cristina looking at a sculpture of Jesus and asking Juan Antonio a question: "Are you very religious?" Since he wanted to show them this sculpture, this is a reasonable question. Yet, his response surprises her and us: "No, no, no, no, no. I'm not. The trick is to enjoy life, accepting it has no meaning whatsoever." Why he values this sculpture is unclear, but his philosophy of life is apparent.

Woody Allen speaks through Juan Antonio. He has posited this in other movies, such as Whatever Works. This position contradicts the Christian worldview. Those of us who follow Jesus affirm a meaning to life that drives us. God has architected history, from the beginning to the end. Meaning is weaved throughout, though we may not understand it this side of eternity.

Javier Bardem Real life couple PENELOPE CRUZ and JAVIER BARDEM starring in the movie 'Vicky Cristina Barcelona' which is directed by Woody Allen. These are still shots from the movie which include SCARLETT JOHANNSSON, REBECCA HALL and PATRICIA CLARKSON...
Cristina answers Juan Antonio's question: "No meaning? You don't think that authentic love gives life meaning?" She offers our refutation of his position. But his response comes quickly: "Yes, but love is so transient. Isn't it?" He refers back to the love he had for Maria Elena. Yet, this love remains; it is not dead, it is not transient. It simply needed to be brought back to the surface. He contradicts himself in his later actions.

Love does give life meaning. Without love we would live cold hard lives suffused with selfishness with nothing to hope for. Sometimes earthly love may be transient. When marriages end in divorce, the love that cemented a couple has crumbled and disappeared. But it does not have to be that way. Certainly, God's love is not like that. His love for us is not transient; rather it is everlasting (Jer. 31:3). We experience it somewhat now, but we will experience it fully in heaven later.

Even if our lives seem muddled and empty, we don't need a summer fling in Barcelona to offer the vestiges of love. And simple sex cannot fulfill the emptiness that lies within our hearts. Meaning does not come from fulfilling our physical appetites. Woody Allen is off-track. Authentic love comes from the source of love, God himself (1 Jn. 4:16), and gives meaning to our mundane lives. Have you tasted this love yet (Psa. 34:8)? It is never too late. And you can do it in Beaverton or Barbados as well as Barcelona!

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

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