“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
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
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.
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,