"I'm sorry for everything I said when I left," a pretty young waitress whispers into a pay phone at the back of her restaurant in the opening scene of "Sex and Lucia." Regret and apprehension resonate in her voice. Her body is both tense and tired, not from too little sleep (although that's probably a part of it) but from the fatigue of having strain she can't resolve in a relationship that has been the most important thing in her life.
All of this is evident within seconds of this girl's presence on screen, so it's no wonder the composed yet sensual and expressive Paz Vega won a Goya (Spain's Oscar) for this performance. She goes on to cover a remarkable range of emotion, strength and vulnerability as the lovely Lucia, who by the end of that phone call has sensed desperate despondency in her already deeply-troubled lover. She dashes home to find a disturbing farewell note just as the phone rings with a call from the police expressing regret about an horrible automobile accident....
Lucia hangs up in the middle of the call, hastily packs a backpack and runs away to the only place she can think of that might put her heart at rest -- an island off the coast that Lorenzo (Tristan Ulloa), her lover, had always talked about but never taken her to visit.
Adept at plumping the depths of love and loss, "Sex and Lucia's" writer-director Julio Medem ("Lovers of the Arctic Circle") also has a talent for entrancing visuals and a penchant for extraordinary twist of fate. At the same time that Lucia is reaching the island -- a parched Mediterranean paradise of crystal blue seas and rocky cliff tops, photographed in transporting, heat-baked, sun-bleached colors -- Medem flashes back to six years before, when Lorenzo spent his 26th birthday on the island, making love in the ocean to a local girl with whom he didn't exchange names.
Completely unaware of the connection, on her solace-seeking trip in the present, Lucia befriends this same woman, a seemingly free spirit named Elena (Najwa Nimri from "Arctic Circle" and "Open Your Eyes") who is, in fact, also hiding from the memory of a personal catastrophe.
Medem then intertwines Lucia's emotional convalescence with the histories of all three characters in a heart-catching, hair-pin-curving narrative of circumstance, coincidence and destiny. Young Lucia's giddy, unorthodox seduction of Lorenzo -- a novelist she admired so much she resolved to make him fall in love with her -- is part of the story, as is their passionate, sexually adventurous love affair. Lorenzo's fortuitous discovery that he has a daughter -- a fact he withholds this from Lucia -- and a terrible tragedy that is an indirect result of this knowledge, sends the haunted writer into an emotional tailspin that begins to bring the film's themes full-circle.
Profound performances by Vega (who looks like a younger, fresher, more pithy Penelope Cruz), Ulloa and Nimri give the film such a compelling intimacy that it feels as if the emotions are wafting off the screen. This is especially true of the many carnal love scenes as if Lorenzo and Lucia. Bee-stung pixie Elena Anaya -- another Goya nominee for the film -- also makes an unforgettable impression as the little girl's babysitter, a sexual siren who ensnares Lorenzo as he tries to bond with his child surreptitiously.
At times Medem over-reaches in his quest for empathetic intensity. A character-establishing peripheral storyline about the babysitter being turned on by watching old porno movies starring her mom is excessive and ultimately unnecessary to the plot. The film is not well served by an on-camera birth scene that leaves nothing to the imagination. One more complaint: Because the audience is privy to connections that the characters are not, the last act drags a little while we wait for the other shoe to drop.
But the captivating psychological journeys in "Sex and Lucia" -- which contain far more intricacies and surprises than I've described here -- and Medem's remarkable, metaphorical filmmaking style make it possible to overlook such impediments and just let the picture's potency wash over you like the warm Mediterranean waters.
(FYI: There is a distracting age-related error in the film's subtitles. Just keep in mind that a photograph discussed by Elena in one scene was taken in 1998, not 1988.)
Box Office Worldwide: $1.6M
Production compaines: Alicia Produce S L, StudioCanal, Canal+ España, Sociedad General de Cine (SOGECINE) S.A., Sogepaq, Televisión Española TVE
Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5
Director: Julio Medem
Starring: Paz Vega as Lucía, Tristán Ulloa as Lorenzo, Najwa Nimri as Elena, Daniel Freire as Carlos/Antonio, Elena Anaya as Belén, Silvia Llanos as Luna, Diana Suárez as Madre de Belén, Javier Cámara as Pepe, Juan Fernández as Jefe