“The Skin I Live In”
There’s always a tension between being a practicing parish pastor and also a film critic. Let’s face it, the few movies which purport to be religious are often smug and tedious and self-serving, and people stay away in droves. And yet, filmmakers in general, and Hollywood producers in particular, are almost rabidly anti-religious. When was the last time you saw a positive ministerial role model in a mainline general-release movie? Can’t remember one? Well, that’s the problem, isn’t it? Such a significant part of many people’s lives can’t really be systematically ignored and those same people still expected to suspend disbelief, right?
Most of the time we can all pretend that belief system isn’t integral to the film, such as in romantic comedies (but wait, isn’t personal spiritual conviction still an important topic of discussion in any relationship?), or science fiction (but wait, doesn’t the possibility of created beings other than humans still beg the question of the identity of the creator?). Every once in a while, a movie comes along that is almost startling in its lack of religious referencing. Even when the main character “plays God,” as in Pedro Almodovar’s “The Skin I Live In.”
This experimental film about a mad scientist (Antonio Banderas) who appears to be so focused and driven as to be dysfunctionally sane is difficult to watch at many levels. It’s subtitled, which some language-snob Americans refuse to even attempt to watch. (But they’re missing out on a lot of creativity and inventiveness in “foreign” films.) It involves nudity so stark as to be virtually clinical, and sexuality so driven by personal power as to be inseparable from exploitation. Its primary motivations are revenge, and yet its personal violence is so heartless as to be practically inhuman. Yes, the medical breakthroughs approach the science fiction of Frankenstein, but the incessant cruelty just overwhelms the viewer, even past the apparent lunacy.
Banderas plays a surgeon specializing in skin grafts, whose unfaithful wife just happened to be horribly burned in a car crash while running away with her lover. He “rescues” her, barely alive, only to horrify her by imprisoning her in her odious, burned-out skin. She can’t stand even being alive anymore, and their daughter retreats into her own kind of depression----we learn later that mental illness runs in the whole family. One night the daughter is allowed to go out to a party, where she innocently takes a fancy to a young man whose intentions are anything but honorable. She is more than devastated by the experience, and for Banderas, simple retribution is not enough. Through a series of complicated medical procedures, including skin grafts and transgender hormonal therapy, he turns the young man into……a woman (Elena Anaya), who is perfectly sculpted in her own right, and looks hauntingly like his deceased wife. But she’s also his prisoner, and someone he’s become so obsessed with that he…..well, you can guess where this colossal transference is going. Is it possible to break the first and second commandment with the tenth, and the seventh with the sixth? Banderas lusts after his creation as he would an idol to be worshipped, essentially murdering another by robbing of identity, all as retribution for fornication, which becomes the new idol.
Whew. This is way too sick for most decent, churchgoing folk to find anything redemptive, and yet, Director Pedro Almodovar constructs such a bizarre scenario that it’s as soaringly creative as it is off-puttingly macabre. We wouldn’t want to live in his skin. But we are fascinated like atavistic voyeurs about the world he sees through his unblinking camera.
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, Interim Pastor, St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church, Irving , Texas