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Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2004


I wear shoes therefore I am


Rating: * * * (out of 5)
Director: Ramon Salazar
Running time: 135 minutes
Language: Spanish (Japanese subtitles)
Opens Oct. 2
[See Japan Times movie listings]

There are few men who really understand the importance of women's shoes, said the great Marlene Dietrich. She held that the feet were the most important part of the female anatomy, and as such deserved the most attention, i.e., proper pedicure and the shoes to match them. Too bad she was long gone before Spanish filmmaker Ramon Salazar decided to devote an entire film to shoes and their effect on women.

News photo
Angela Molina (left) gets a massage from an unidentified stranger in "Piedras."

"Piedras" (which means stones, not shoes, for some reason fathomable only to the director -- but it's called "Kutsu ni Koishite" in Japan) is the title of this work that could be described as positively fetishistic in its focus on women's feet and their choice of footwear. But Salazar also stresses that shoes don't really make the woman: They are part of her, but at the same time lead an entirely independent existence. He tells us that -- unlike dresses or other apparel -- truly beautiful shoes will not love the owner. In fact, they are apt to betray her (heels break at the wrong moment; they cause calluses, induce pain, etc.). When you come right down to it, shoes are the least sympathetic element of a woman's attire; far from helping her, they won't hesitate to teach her a life lesson or two.

To prove it, "Piedras" introduces us to five women, all of whom are plagued by personal problems and majorly involved in various ways with their shoes.

The most complex of the lot is Isabel, who is mired in an unsatisfactory marriage to a wealthy bureaucrat and is the owner of 3,000 pairs of lovelies, displayed in her specially customized closet like objets d'art. Isabel is a passionate footwear connoisseur, but she's also an abject slave: By insisting on shoes that are a size or two smaller, she deliberately damages her feet and revels in the pain and discomfort.

Angela Molina -- who plays Isabel -- is pitch perfect as the still beautiful (she's in her early 50s) but discontent wife, filling her empty days with shopping and sessions with a foot therapist who claims he can bring her to orgasm just by massaging her battered feet. Isabel is immediately won over -- where else is she supposed to feel anything but her feet? On good days, Isabel strikes a perfect balance between what appears to be a dual personality: Despite her unhappiness there's no denying her elegance and good-sport personality. When among friends, they find her supportive and generous with a great sense of humor, but put her in the same room with estranged, heavy-handed husband Leonardo (Rodolfo de Souza) and she is an unapproachable block of ice.

So when Leonardo falls for soft, warm Adela (Madrid's most famed transsexual, Antonia San Juan), who operates a luxury brothel in Madrid, it's easy to understand the appeal. Adela has flat feet but likes high-heeled mules and tight-fitting dresses, both of which are tortuous to her circulation but are bared with regal cheerfulness. She's also not embarrassed to kick off her shoes and sigh with relief in front of Leonardo, either. He courts her like a gentleman and takes the trouble to include her mentally disabled 21-year-old daughter, Anita (Monica Cervera), on their outings. Anita only wears sneakers since walking around her neighborhood with her pet Chihuahua is about the only pleasure she has.

Then there's Leile (Najwa Nimri), who habitually steals the shoes she wears for clubbing on the nights she misses her ex-boyfriend Kun (Daniele Liotti), and totters dangerously in too-high heels. There's Marie-Carmen (Vicky Pena), who drives a cab to support her dead boyfriend's children and can't be bothered to wear shoes at all, but goes around in slippers as they provide the most comfort. Marie-Carmen has forgotten what it was like to dress up, and her wide, square feet attest to her fatigue and sadness.

Salazar draws the various vignettes of their lives, letting the events crisscross or overlap, and the rhythm is snappy if not quite skilled.

But in the last 30 minutes, he drops everything and seeks some kind of closure for all and it comes across as conveyor-belt artificial.

As soon as Salazar gets off the subject of shoes, his women seem all of a sudden to become ordinary and banal -- they had been compelling as shoe-lovers/fetishists, weaving their personal problems into their choice of chunky sneakers or scarlet high-heels. But away from footwear, they discuss love and life with the typical, two-dimensional, soap-opera outlook, making us feel like we've been betrayed, especially those of us really, really into shoes: Can this possibly mean that shoes are not the answer? And what about women like my friend Naomi who says that between men and shoes, the latter is at least more entertaining and long-lasting? What am I supposed to tell her, huh?

The cop-out departure from the shoe issue is unforgivable, which is why "Piedras" is ultimately, and crushingly, a let-down. The premise should be that shoes transcend all other relationships and move beyond the mere man/woman dynamics (yawn), presenting an alternative for women, on par with what philosophy did for Aristotle.

What this movie should have discussed in detail is the delicious, slightly masochistic sensation of slipping one's feet into a new pair of narrow, spiky, champagne-colored mules and the feeling that she is on her way to becoming enslaved by an entity far higher and more beautiful than a mere man.

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