HALF OF HEAVEN * * 1/2 Monica Molina, Angela Molina; in Spanish, with English subtitles; unrated, probable PG (violence, partial nudity, profanity, implied sex); exclusively at the Blue Mouse Theater.
Actresses Angela Molina and her sister Monica play the heroine of "Half of Heaven," during the fading Franco regime in Spain, who finds her life twisted and turned by forces over which she has little control.And it is their performances, in particular Angela's, that hold the film together. Monica Molina is the younger Rosa and Angela Molina carries the bulk of the film as the older Rosa, as we see the character grow from teenage to her early 30s, from 1959 to the early '70s.
There's a lot going on in "Half of Heaven," much of which has to do with Rosa's grandmother, Olvido, a sort of low-key sorceress whose mystical powers are eventually passed down to her great-granddaughter, Rosa herself is far too pragmatic.
Much of the story seems to be a metaphor for the harsh reality of the modern world catching up with small village life in Spain after World War II, and there are side-glances at political references, while religion, despite the dominance of the Catholic Church in that country, is completely ignored.
We first meet Rosa when she is a teenager, one of three daughters in a household that includes her father and grandmother. The village is very poor - no one has indoor plumbing yet - and Rosa's father works in the local foundry.
Rosa is helpful, doing her work willingly and going the extra mile, indicating an ambition that is absent in her lazy sisters.
Against her grandmother's advice and the wishes of the family, Rosa marries a knife-grinder who comes through town and she has a child. The marriage ends in tragedy, and it is hinted that, for Rosa's sake, her grandmother may have had something to do with her husband's untimely demise.
Rosa then takes her baby daughter, named after the grandmother, to Madrid after obtaining work as a wet nurse for a recently widowed government official. There she begins making connections that allow her to climb to some success, first as a vendor in a local market, then as a restaurateur.
These climbs are not without their hurdles, and it is a slow and frustrating process for her. Unfortunately, it is also a slow and frustrating process for us.
Ultimately, little Olvido begins to take her grandmother's place as the family mystic, but the film's ending seems to suggest that doesn't happen after all.
The performances here are excellent, and several individual scenes are rich with character and filled with comedy or pathos that works quite well. But many others are drawn out and slow, plodding and with motivations that are rather muddled.
The ironies are many here and there seem to be several levels of interpretation at work, but for me it was just too vague and I came out feeling unsatisfied and confused.
This may be a movie that will work better for those more understanding of Spain's history and culture, but others may wind up as frustrated as Rosa.
Though unrated, "Half of Heaven" would likely receive a PG for violence, a couple of profanities, partial nudity and implied sex, none presented in too overt a manner on the screen.