Spanish auteur Pedro Amoldóvar has a special talent for making eccentrics feel accessible. His films are always populated, at least in part, by unusual characters (transvestites, bondage freaks, pregnant nuns) who are so fully developed as characters -- and as human beings -- that they seem no stranger than your next door neighbor.
In "Talk To Her," the director's central weirdo an awkward, obsessive, socially incongruous male nurse with a stalker's crush on a comatose patient. His name is Benigno (Javier Camara) and his intensely sheltered life of caring for his fake-invalid mother has not only compelled him toward this kind of imaginary, one-sided "relationship," it was also the catalyst for his obsession in the first place.
Benigno lived with his mother across the street from a dance studio where he first became dumbstruck by Alicia (Leonor Watling), watching her through the windows before a hit-and-run accident left her hospitalized and effectively brain-dead. Having taken correspondence courses in nursing to better care for the old woman -- who had since died and left him alone in the apartment from which he rarely ventured -- Benigno convinced the girl's father to hire him as her private nurse.
Now he spends six days a week at Alicia's bedside -- talking to her, bathing her, washing and combing her hair -- and spends his nights sleeping with a picture of her expressionless face beside his bed.
Camara's superb performance hints at something naggingly disconcerting inside the outwardly benign Benigno, with his awkward body language (his walk is one of unnecessarily short-strided shuffling) and distracted gaze (he lingers on thoughts and gestures as if he's seeking answers in a foggy mind). He gives the other nurses the creeps, but only insomuch as they consider him a maladjusted ninny in denial about his homosexuality.
In fact, Benigno's only friend is Marco (Dario Grandinetti), a travel writer who is the strong, sensitive, self-aware opposite of Benigno in every way except one: his famous bullfighter girlfriend (Rosario Flores) is in a coma at the same hospital, after being gored.
For Marco, his predicament is a devastating drain on his heart and his sanity. For Benigno, whose sanity is already in question, it's the only way he can have Alicia. She had met him twice before her accident and found him more than a little creepy when he made an appointment with her father, a shrink, just to be close to her, then sneaked into their apartment -- something her father wasn't aware of before hiring him as Alicia's nurse.
Amoldóvar, who won an Oscar for 1999's "All About My Mother") is a master of emotional texture, peeling away layer upon layer of the feelings these two men suffer for the women they love (or think they love) until he reaches Benigno's troubled psyche and Marco's benevolent soul. When Benigno's fantasy turns amorally impulsive, it is only that soul which allows Marco to try to save his friend, turning dire, shocking and eventually miraculous events into transformations of spirit.
Parts of "Talk to Her" may be difficult to digest for those who would not rise to Marco's level of altruism in the same situation (and I'm one of them). But Grandinetti's heart-on-sleeve portrayal makes good sense of his compassion and under Almodóvar's transcendent direction, the picture is compelling even in its most provocative and most esoteric moments -- save one. During the pivotal scene in which the story takes a turn for the discomfiting, the director tries too hard to keep the bombshell event from weighing the movie down with ugly reality by deploying a curious silent film sequence, eschewing reality for Benigno's considerably misshapen point of view.
However, Almodóvar's eloquence and emotional veracity create such a complete sensory experience -- even in this notably askew scene but especially in the men's flashbacks reflecting on the women's lives -- that "Talk to Her" draws you deeply into the characters' hearts whether you like them or not. The director's distinctive visual signature of robust, mood-creating colors and simple, elegant editing lend the film a piquancy that helps makes every sentiment not only tangible, but almost viscerally vivid.