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‘Don’t Move’ shows a different side of Cruz

Stars as a feisty maid in fiercely sexual relationship
/ Source: The Associated Press

Forget what you think you know about Penelope Cruz — the glamorous Ralph Lauren ads, the tabloid-fodder romances with Tom Cruise and Matthew McConaughey, the questionable forays into big-budget English-language films like “Sahara” and “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin.”

With “Don’t Move,” the Spanish star reminds us of why we found her fascinating in the first place: Besides being gorgeous, she can act. And because she can act, she elevates Italian director/co-star Sergio Castellitto’s film about a doomed affair above its soapiness.

Dressed down and tarted up, she recalls Giulietta Masina in Fellini’s “The Nights of Cabiria” as a feisty hotel maid who gets involved in a fiercely sexual relationship with a wealthy, married surgeon.

As Italia, she’s almost unrecognizable with her mismatched clothes, bad teeth and worse makeup. Well, almost. Despite the bowl-legged gait as she struts awkwardly through her destitute neighborhood in Rome, those are still Penelope Cruz’s long, lean gams sprouting from that cheap miniskirt.

Her inner transformation, though, is what counts. And there’s something raw and real and sort of lonely about Italia that enthralls the more sophisticated Timoteo (Castellitto, who also wrote the script based on the novel by his wife, Margaret Mazzantini).

He reflects upon the relationship in flashbacks one afternoon while his teenage daughter (Elena Perino) is lying unconscious in a hospital bed after a motorbike accident.

Timoteo recalls meeting Italia after his car breaks down on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere. Having killed time drinking straight vodka in the heat while waiting for the mechanic to finish, he asks to use Italia’s phone, then proceeds to force himself on her. The act isn’t so much startling as it is mechanical and inert. She pretty much lets him do it, and when he repeatedly returns to her house afterward, she lets him do it some more.

Even though he’s married to the impossibly beautiful and elegant Elsa (Claudia Gerini), with whom he shares a comfortable home and a healthy sex life, the sad-eyed Timoteo finds he’s happier with Italia. It’s not just the exotic, rebellious nature of slumming it — he’s more comfortable with her, she’s low-maintenance. It’s totally believable that these two disparate people could fall into a forbidden fling — and their connection does turn tender.

Italia gets pregnant (at the same time as Elsa — how’s that for melodrama?) and after driving her to a clinic in his Volvo station wagon for an abortion, Timoteo changes his mind and instead examines her himself, tenderly kissing her body as he goes along.

It’s the most sensual scene in a film that, for the most part, is shot in a gritty style and sometimes feels gratuitously shocking. Toward the end, Timoteo and Italia are having desperate, “9½ Weeks”-style sex in a back alley in the rain. By that point it almost feels like Castellitto is trying to see how far he can push it before we look away, completely offended.

And yet — not to give too much away — he lets some people off the hook a bit too easily. It’s not a happy ending for anyone, but let’s just say it’s happier for some more than others.