"WHAT HAVE I DONE to Deserve This!" is a deadpan, darkly comic tale of dishpan hands set in the housing projects of post-Franco Spain. Pedro Almodovar writes and directs with enviable depravity, and Carmen Maura is marvelous as the put- upon heroine Gloria, a lower-class housewife who is about to go over the edge.
It's a loosely structured, witty pro-feminist tract full of impotent men, servile women, disturbed kids and other quirky souls. Like "Liquid Sky" and "Stranger Than Paradise." And like those two films, it offers an explicit, angry, gritty social view.
Expect no flamenco dancers.
The heroine's life is a desperate soap opera of dishwater dreams and little burst bubbles, little disasters of spilled cream and stuffed shirts that wear her happiness away. She never had much, wants little and expects even less out of life. She's like Mr. Bill with a mop, her eyes bright from the NoDoz she takes to stay awake, her mind cycling between rinse and spin. Yet innocently and heroically, she confronts the absurdity of dusting and the insensitivity of men.
Gloria lives in one of Madrid's ugliest neighborhoods, with grey skyscrapers growing from blacktop. The neighbors include a prostitute who dresses and moves like Barbie and a little girl who can levitate kitchen cabinets like Carrie.
Nothing suprises Gloria anymore, not even supernatural powers. She's too tired and too hungry. She's so poor she feeds her kids appetite suppressants. Luckily, the youngest is adopted by a gay dentist and that alleviates some of the financial strain.
Gloria also works part-time as a cleaning woman in a Kendo academy, where she is seduced by a martial artist in a shower stall. He is impotent. And there's no steam. But all is not lost. Gloria observes the kendo masters practicing with bamboo staffs, imitating their thrusts with her broom, a technique that will come in handy later when she attacks her chauvinist husband with a hambone.
Angel de Andres-Lopez plays the insensitive brute, a failure as provider, father and lover. Almodovar, who is as empathetic as feminist filmmaker John Sayles, has no sympathy for machismo. And that is becoming more and more a prevailing sentiment in the new wave of liberated Latin films.
"What Have I Done" is a comic catharsis that will appeal to anyone who's been left alone with the dirty dishes. Where's the Joy in that?
WHAT HAVE I DONE TO DESERVE THIS! (Unrated) -- In Spanish with English subtitles at the Key.