The combination of Pedro Almodóvar and convent melodrama suggests sacrilegious kitsch, yet this sophomore jaunt, following the ecstatic transgression of Pepi, Luci, Bom and Labyrinth of Passions, is quietly melancholic, possibly the first work to hint at the tender sadness of his later phase. Pop-saturated hedonism is in no short supply, nevertheless -- his prankish troupe is swatched in nun's habits and plopped in the middle of the self-mortifying Community of Humble Redeemers, where Sister Damned (Carmen Maura) cuddles pet tigers, Sister Manure (Marisa Paredes) bakes LSD-laced cake and Sister Sewer Rat (Chus Lampreave) pens softcore roman à clefs on the side. Into their crumbling Madrid order steps cabaret singer Cristina Sánchez Pascual, looking for a place to crash after her junkie boyfriend ODs, and immediately attracting the affections of the Mother Superior (Julieta Serrano). The abbess' closeted love for the provocative intruder may be a dig at the lesbian subplot of Diderot's La Religieuse, although Almodóvar is less interested in clerical dismantling than his hero, Luis Buñuel. Where Don Luis sees padres as admen for the unnatural suppression of human nature, the worst thing the priest (Manuel Zarzo) does here is having a smoke while extolling Cecil Beaton's fab costume design in My Fair Lady, and giving the church's statues stylish makeovers with the aid of his secret beloved, Sister Viper (Lina Canalejas). For Almodóvar, as for Buñuel, the biggest sin is to deny one's true emotions, and the film remains as sensitive to its characters' more subversive impulses as to their hunger to find their spiritual anchor amid changing times. It is in "the imperfect creatures that God finds all His greatness," Serrano remembers, and Almodóvar's critique is not of religion's soulful pull but of its spawn, the oppressive order that corsets expressions of desire and, accordingly, of life. With Mary Carrillo, Will More, and Cecilia Roth.
--- Fernando F. Croce