A Slice o' Hell

Don't Tempt Me with this teasing battle for one man's soul

Sin noticias de Dios, retitled Don't Tempt Me for U.S. release, didn't fare too well in Spain upon its release there in December 2001, despite its cast of faces famous and almost famous. It wasn't quite Gigli, but damned near. The reasons for its tanking, like a boxer taking a dive, aren't altogether unfathomable: The movie's more premise than promise, a high-concept piece in which a representative from Heaven (Lola, played by one-time Pedro Almodóvar regular Victoria Abril) and another from Hell (Penélope Cruz's Carmen) vie for the soul of a boxer, Manny (Demián Bichir), who's one blow to the head away from ringing his last bell. But just why they're slugging it out over one measly man -- described as "an ordinary sinner" -- is never quite clear, to us or even to those engaged in the tug-of-war; it has something to do with keeping the balance between good and evil in check, but never is the reason more than hinted at. It's just a plot device, a thing that keeps a poorly running vehicle lurching forward until at last it stalls on the side of the road and is altogether abandoned.

Before it collapses in a frustrating heap in the aisles of a grocery store, where a battle of wills devolves into a bloody gunfight, Don't Tempt Meenjoys itself; it wears the sly grin of a little devil, even during the scenes set in a black-and-white Heaven, where everyone speaks French and Lola provides the evening's entertainment as a lounge singer in need of the crowd's adoration. Heaven is managed by the French-speaking Marina D'Angelo (Fanny Ardant, François Truffaut's longtime lover and star of his final two films), who recruits Lola to save Manny's soul, which is badly needed to help replenish Heaven's dwindling bank account. Things have gotten so bad that God has retreated in depression, and Heaven is nearly bankrupt -- though how the saving of a single soul will put Heaven back in the black remains a mystery throughout a film more in love with its concept than its execution.

Hell is in similarly dire financial straits, thanks in large part to a rebellion forming amongst higher-ups who want to oust manager Jack Davenport (Gael García Bernal, of Amores Perrosand Y Tu Mamá También) -- an uprising that includes, among other things, a demand for the installation of air-conditioning in management's offices. Hell, as revealed by writer-director Agustín Díaz Yanes (1995's Nobody Will Speak of Us When We're Dead), is far less inviting than its upstairs counterpart: It's an intemperate wasteland on the outside (it looks a bit like Arizona) and a prison cafeteria on the inside, where Carmen takes orders and endures the taunts and attempted sexual assaults of its patrons. The cruelest joke of all is that, in Hell, only English is spoken.

Had Yanes made a film about the long-running feud between Heaven and Hell, presented as two crooked corporations paying the price for years of fraud -- and the absence of CEO God, who doesn't take meetings or seem concerned with book-keeping shenanigans -- he might have had something substantive and wry. He's good with the small, nasty joke, such as when the former head of the International Monetary Fund takes over Hell's finances, or when Carmen's shocked to learn that Lola, a former politician, was allowed into Heaven despite her former profession. The writer-director's trying to say something about the corruption of culture -- we've become, says one character, a Disneyland populated by people who feel no guilt for anything and are therefore hellbound from the get-go -- but winds up getting lost in the Lola-Carmen-Manny Bermuda triangle.

The biggest problem is that Manny's a thoroughly unlikable and wholly unredeemable character -- a boxer who likes to hit his women and expects them to either stand in the kitchen or lie in the bedroom, as well as a thug who's swindled from corrupt cops who now expect him to pay up or else. We're never sure why his is a soul worth saving or why it's so highly prized by the two fallen angels who've moved in with him. (Curiously, he recognizes Lola as his wife and Carmen as his long-lost cousin, and we're never sure how this is possible since they've only just been assigned to the case.)

Cruz, at least, is far more engaging here than in any of her English-language outings, likely because Carmen's not quite what she seems; late in the film we discover just why she cries when watching Goodfellasand gets a kick out of dancing to "Kung-Fu Fighting." But she's done no favors by a screenplay that keeps her identity and intentions too much in the shadows to enjoy the rare moment in a warm spotlight. Yanes can't decide if he's making a Tarantino reference or an Almodóvar riff or an Albert Brooks tribute (before Manny goes to Heaven or Hell, he must, ahem, defend his life in a courtroom), and the wobbly sensibility finally knocks the movie's legs out from beneath it altogether. Damn it.

 
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