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Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2003

The afterlife can't wait

Sin noticias de Dios

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)
Director: Agustin Diaz Yanes
Running time: 108 minutes
Language: French, English and Spanish
Now showing

"Can't wait to die" is a likely reaction after "Sin noticias de Dios (Welcome Heaven)." According to this movie, in heaven you'll get to hang out with angel Victoria Abril in a 1940s-style Parisian nightclub. And if hell's your destination, you can sweat alongside devil Penelope Cruz in a flaming-red tank top as she waits on tables in one of their cafeterias that serve only cheeseburgers and fries. Either way, you can't lose, and checking out has never seemed so attractive.

News photo
Penelope Cruz and Demian Bichur in "Sin noticias de Dios"

So goes this delightful movie by Agustin Diaz Yanes, in which he benignly pokes fun at the concept of the afterlife and has a good chuckle in the process.

Heaven, filmed in tasteful black-and-white, is portrayed as a stately prewar Paris where apparently all arrondisements except the 16th have been eliminated (Spoken language? Upper-class French).

Hell, in vivid color, is an artful combo of the basement laundry of a Hilton Hotel and the immigrations scene in "Godfather Part 2." Long lines of sinners stand in the midst of the steam and din, patiently waiting for the officers to stamp their papers and relocate them to an appropriate "level" in accordance with their past crimes. (Spoken language: street English).

As for Earth, it's modern-day Spain in which we see little else besides a supermarket and the subway, and people worrying about keeping their jobs. (Spoken language: Spanish.)

Of the three, hell is the only place that's thriving -- what with the vast number of naughty people being sent down every day, business is so good that the Board Members (played with subtle hilarity by Gemma Jones and Peter McDonald) are looking to wipe out the Heavenly competition and make Eternity all their own. Heaven's CEO Marina D'Angelo (Fanny Ardant) is determined that such a thing should not happen. She dispatches her most reliable angel agent, Lola (Abril), to save the soul of punch-drunk boxer Manny (Demian Bichur), soon to die either in the ring or by the hand of an evil gambling lord. If Manny makes it to Heaven, she can somehow put their accounts back in the black. After all, one wretched soul saved is worth thousands of unapologetic sinners.

Not to be outdone, the powers of hell send an agent of their own. Handpicked by Hell Commander Jack Davenport (Gael Garcia Bernal) for this important mission is Carmen (Cruz) who is currently working off her sins as a low-level waitress but with ambitions to better her situation. Pretending to be Manny's kid cousin, she moves into his apartment while Lola assumes the form of his estranged wife.

And so Good and Evil both go to work on Manny, but he's more complex than they bargained for: He's a case-hardened macho man who never listens to a woman if he can help it. He's also lugging around a huge Oedipus complex and has a violent streak. Underneath it all, he's actually a kind-hearted man madly in love with his wife but clueless about how to treat her right. Sandwiched in between blond Lola and brunette Carmen, pulled back and forth between repentance and self-gratification, Manny becomes seriously and gloriously confused.

Yanes is obviously an altruistic director who really cares about giving pleasure to his audience. Not only do we get to see Abril (Spain's metaphor for the wicked femme fatale) and Cruz (the Spanish incarnation of angelic sweetness) together in one frame, we see them in reverse typecast roles as Abril pours on the honey in white Chanels and Cruz literally struts her baaadness in head-to-toe black leather.

A highlight comes when Carmen is getting ready for a night out with her girlfriends. With her long tresses still wet from the shower and "Kung Fu Fighting" on the boom box, she stands in front of the mirror with her feet squarely apart, combing her hair back and singing/dancing along to her reflection in a way that would have shamed John "Saturday Night Fever" Travolta into total submission. The fun Cruz has with this role makes you realize that Hollywood has drastically underused her abilities -- and it took her return to a Spanish film (her first since "All About My Mother") to prove the point.

But the most refreshing thing about "Sin noticias" is that despite its origins in Spain (homeland of the Inquisition) and subject matter, the story never gets preachy nor does it once mention God, Jesus or even religion. The rivalry between heaven and hell is more like polite competition between two corporations, with even a little love interest going between the chief execs Marina and Davenport. (Apparently they had been lovers at one point in the 19th century, decided to part gracefully and now exchange meaningful looks whenever they happen to meet.) The whole thing is just so civilized and intelligent. Now if only someone could put this on the required-viewing list for all TV evangelists.

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