Unique in Almodovar’s filmography in that it was based on a novel (by British crime novelist Ruth Rendell) and unusual in that he worked with other writers on the screenplay, Live Flesh (1997) seems to be put into one of two categories: The response is either that it’s lesser Almodovar, or that it’s a sign of his growing maturity. Both mean the same thing in terms of the result — it’s not as wildly comic as most of his other films, its flights of fancy less fantastic, its tone more serious. But it’s hard to dismiss the film, because it’s still very much an Almodovar picture with most of the anticipated outrageous occurrences intact.
The story is certainly in keeping with most of his work, though its structure is unique. Prostitute Isabel Plaza (Penelope Cruz) gives birth to a boy, Victor, under an electric star of Bethlehem on a Madrid city bus in 1970 — a time when the streets of the city are all but deserted thanks to the repressive government (one of the few references in Almodovar’s work to that era). As a young man, Victor (Liberto Rabal) falls for Elena (Francesca Neri), who wants nothing to do with him, leading to circumstances where the police get called in. The ensuing altercation finds one of two officers, David (Javier Bardem), shot and paralyzed and Victor sent to prison. When he gets out, he’s still in love with Elena, who is now married to David.
What follows explores the relationship of the three of them — along with the relationship of the other officer (Jose Sancho) and his wife (Angela Molina). There are the expected hyped-soap-opera dramatics, but the film is more straightforward and deliberately paced than most Almodovar films. And yet, for all its seriousness, it is ultimately probably the most completely positive work in the filmmaker’s oeuvre — a seeming paradox that makes it essential.