The second of newly formed label Nucleus Films' first two releases, showcasing recent Spanish cinema, is a bizarre, futuristic fantasy that crosses the warped sensibility of Pedro Almodovar's early work with the tender, fairy-tail Gothic romance of Tim Burton. "The Ugliest Woman in the World" somehow manages to combine touching character detail and delicate wit with a taste for exploitation and a sense of humour that often approaches the glib insensitivity of the less depraved output of Troma Films! This incautious mix is not always one hundred per cent successful; but director, Miguel Bardem, presides over an undoubtedly memorable piece of work nonetheless!
In 1982, a new-born baby with a grotesquely deformed face is handed over to a convent to be raised by Catholic nuns who venerate Mother Theresa of Calcutta! Although loved by one particular nun, who becomes something of a stepmother to her, the young child grows into a girl who is generally tormented and abused by her peers and society at large; she is even raped by a gang of youths who see having sex with the ugliest girl in the world as a rites of passage test!
Twenty-eight-years later -- in a vision of the future where the advances of technology have been focused almost entirely on achieving physical perfection -- an elderly woman is brutally murdered during a New Year's Eve party, her body torn to pieces in a frenzied attack! A piece of CCTV footage reveals the only person who could have committed the crime is a woman ... dressed as a nun!
Lieutenant Teniente Arribas (Roberto Alvarez) and his befuddled sidekick, Pelayo (Javivi) are given the case. Along with a team of bumbling and insensitive cops, they connect the murder to a physician, Doctor Werner, who was involved in the field of 'morphogenetics' and lost his job because of a series of experiments he conducted on a deformed girl called Lola Otero. Werner's experiments managed to turn Otero into a stunning beauty with the aid of genetic manipulation, but the effects are short-term and she needs renewed shots of Werner's drug to stop her turning back into her original monstrous persona.
Otero becomes the chief suspect in the murder case and when Arribas discovers that the murdered woman was but one of a whole bunch of victims, all of whom had won beauty contests at some point in their lives, they realise Otero is out for revenge on a society that values beauty above all else! As his investigation proceeds though, Arribas cannot help feeling a deep connection with his quarry...
This stylishly rendered conceit full of quirky characters and satirical humour is somewhat sprawling as it roams restlessly across genres, encompassing any number of different moods along the way: one minute its a Gilliam-esque dystopian fantasy, the next a harrowing murder mystery, and the next a sci-fi comedy! So we have a disturbing rape scene rubbing shoulders with the opulently staged fairy tale ambience of a Masquerade Ball sequence; and a tense siege stand-off at the climax of the film becomes an outrageous monster transformation scene (more like Troma's "Toxic Avenger" than Cronenberg's "The Fly")! This could have made for an unbearable mess, but the underlying themes of the film are conveyed by the main characters well enough to run a connecting thread through the miasma of film references and disparate set-pieces.
The future, as envisioned here by Miguel Bardem, is just as contradictory and heterogeneous. On the one hand technological gadgets are more ingenious and showy than ever: with sixty-foot-high television images projected onto the sides of vast skyscrapers; advanced genetic technology; and voice-respondent video recorders etc. But on the other hand, the city surroundings are just as shabby, dirty and uninviting as today's; while popular culture is -- if it's possible -- more tacky, celebrity obsessed and beauty-orientated than even our own! Juan Bardem's Danny Elfmann-esque score pours a treacly layer of distancing, dreamlike ambience over this confusing, rather unwholesome world but certain details consistently emerge to remind us of our own contemporary culture in a mildly jarring fashion -- creating a slight frisson of satire that, thankfully, never becomes too overwrought.
Bardem often displays a keen visual sense in his shot composition and, on several occasions, some nice roving steady-cam work adds a kinetic flair to the imagery. While their execution sometimes mimic classic Argento, some of the film's ideas could have come straight from the mind of Almodavar: a beautiful woman with super-model good looks who slaughters other beauties, but who is never without her crucifix-shaped locket that holds a a photograph of Mother Theresa for good luck! The killer, Lola, infiltrating the Miss Spain Beauty Pageant with intent to murder the winner live on stage via a collapsible sawn-off shotgun folded into the heels of her platform shoes! It's all typical of that slightly off-colour Almodavar style, as are the murder sequences which are shot with a weird sensibility -- halfway between camp excess and frank brutality -- best illustrated by the garrotting meted out to one character while he stands at a urinal in the Gents! The killing is then completed in one of the toilet cubicles, with the victim left perched on the "throne"!
Heading the cast as the revenge-seeking killer, Lola Otero, is a former model called Elia Galera. This was her first screen role and although obviously cast more for her striking statuesque beauty than for her acting talent, Galera is actually rather good in the part of someone who is hiding their rage and pain behind an artificial, lab-created beauty that is more acceptable to society than the disturbing reality. Galera isn't required to display too much emotional range, as the character maintains an icy detachment from feeling or sentiment for much of the film; but some degree of poignancy is injected into the gaudy, fantastical goings on through the excellent performance of lead actor, Roberto Alvarez as Lieutenant Arribas. At first, his character appears to be a clichéd, hard-boiled cop; but it turns out that this persona is just as much of an image, behind which Arribas is forced to hide in order to maintain respect, as Otero's socially acceptable model good looks. Arribas is really a toothless, eyeless, balding wreak who secretly disguises his true self with wigs, dentures and artificial eyes! This double life helps give him an understanding and eventually a true love of Galera despite the fact that he is the one who must, ultimately, bring her to justice!
The tragedy of social conformity stifling happiness and understanding between people is an underlying heavyweight theme here; and it is also carried forth in a subplot involving Arribas's partner, Sergeant Pelayo, played with a mixture of sensitivity and comic pathos by Javivi. Pelayo is first seen dressed as Clark Gable at the crime scene of the first murder because he was at a New Year's Eve fancy dress party before being called out. A woman dressed as a lion tamer, who Pelayo met and fell in love with at the party, turns out to be a transsexual -- much to the amusement of Pelayo's macho colleagues! This subplot apparently starts out as merely a comic digression, but Pelayo's gradual acceptance that his feelings for this person are real, whatever their physical appearance, becomes an uplifting parallel strand to the main plot, adding a little more depth to what threatens to become merely a forgettable comedy-thriller.
Nucleus Films present this curiosity in its original, widescreen presentation with an anamorphic transfer. The image quality is generally good although sometimes a little too dark; a few sequences near the beginning of the film look very grainy but things quickly settle down. The Spanish language audio receives a Stereo 2.0 and optional Dolby Digital 5.1 mix. A 16 minute "making of" featurette is included on the disc although it is rather superficial and padded out with clips from the film. Also included are trailers for this and Nucleues films' other new release, "Between Your Legs", as well as a preview of one of their forthcoming releases. Finally, an animated image gallery rounds off this collection of extras.
Nucleus Films get off to a solid start with their first two cult Spanish movie releases. "The Ugliest Woman in the World" provides a worthy dose of offbeat esoterica for genre fans to enjoy and this disc delivers a decent presentation an unusual flick. Worth checking out.