When we first meet Isabella Oliveira (Penelope Cruz) she is aboard a plane bound for San Francisco. She is "up in the air" with a turmoil roiling underneath. She is sickened by both the emotion she feels toward her cheating husband Toninho (Murilo Benicio) and by the energy of the flight itself that is now in motion. She has left Toninho for sure and is on her way to start a new life with the help of her childhood friend Monica Jones (Harold Perrineau Jr.). Throughout her life this is the way she reclaims control over her emotions and her motion sickness. She stays above them like a woman on top. Or does she?
"Once upon a time," our narrator begins, "in a land called Bosanova lived a girl named Isabella. When she was born the gods blessed her with beauty but overlooked one itty bitty flaw." Immediately one understands that what overlays the darkness that has overtaken Isabella's life is already speaking through a world vested with magical properties. We are, from the beginning underneath the sensible reality, in a wonder tale. This gives to our awareness of plot something deeper in us; something deeper working beyond the plot.
All plots are myths. But, myths are more than plots. They are tales told about the interaction of humans and the divine. Myths link together capacities with divine powers. To be in a myth is to be in mimesis with those powers (Hillman, 11). But, what are these divine powers and who is this god? How did we enter this world of wonder? How did we enter this world of imagination speaking to us with its own kind of outside reality?
Before the magic of any word we encounter image; blue, fluid and silvery-white. It is water. Through the blue-flounced fluidity our thoughts cross between a world of sensual reality and a superasensual once-upon-a-time-ness world wherein the properties of wonder-tale remind us that anything and everything can be made possible (Harrison, 512). With this accent on the motion and fluidity the opening image conveys, we move into contact with the inherited archetypal forms of early river/rain goddesses of Africa, specifically Yemayá-Yemoja. Yemoja then, resurfaces in our conscious awareness with Isabella and recalls in us the rolling movement of water (Murphy 96).
With this recollection of fluidity of movement through water flows also the notion of movement over the surface of water. Not only is there a movement away from the hard surfaces of factual reality and a crossing over into the imaginal realm indicated by the narrator's opening remarks, but also there is a current giving this imaginal space location underneath the lives being storied (and consequently underneath our own lives as well). Isabella and Toninho will cross from childhood into married life and also into separation and loss, then finally into growth, depth, and reunion. Not only will this occur on the surface of the story biographically, this will also be happening imaginally in a tension of oppositions operating underneath the plot.
Yemoja is the Yoruban River-Mother of Sea Deity of Western Africa, carrying within herself the source of all life, the power to protect and defend life, and the art of mystic retribution (Thompson 72). This power is neither an expression of a he or a she, but rather is the expression of Divine presence reflecting energetic essence, an essence referred to as áshe (Thompson 74). Further, Yemoja possesses twin powers and belongs to the dyad of Yemayá-Olukun, reflecting both a her-self in the upper waters and a him-self of unknown (and therefore ominous) depths. Yemoja reflects that which mediates between a he and a she in conflict with each other and in each other as (an other) self. These powers and characteristics of which her name invoke not only mediate in time the over-and-under way a river negotiates a landscape, they, by river mouth, kiss Isabella's soul-sea teasingly alive till she tastes of ocean, thereby penetrating to the inside surface of her own previously unencountered and fully sexual immensity. She comes up against the passion in her body not yet tendered by an embodied love, a body com-passioned.
At one point Isabella shares with Monica what this is like. Monica serves in the story as an earthly reflection of the goddess, a mortal double. Since Monica is a "woman on top" and a man underneath, she betrays the presence of Yemayá-Olukun. Isabella tells Monica that Toninho haunts her as if he were underneath her skin. That is because our "insides" do not refer to a literalized place inside of us, but rather to the subjectivity in events and the attitude that flows back through this in search of a greater psychological depth (Hillman 25). One can see that it is this kind of energy unfolding the plot throughout the many scenes of this movie, even though both Isabella and Toninho offer Yemoja gifts to undo the expression of this essence.
Now the truth is Yemoja-Yemayá is both deep and unknowable even as she fulfills with richness and life through nourishment and care. Therefore, Isabella must enter into contact with this unknowable side of her own internal nature, touch it in spirit, and return again to the surfaces of her life transparent to the former experience of passion if she is ever to truly possess the ability to love Toninho deeply and freely. So Isabella presents herself and her offering to Yemoja to undo/re-do the love-spell.
Through the force of water Yemoja moves from the depths and strikes the deadly blow of dismemberment that wipes Isabella out consciously. Isabella is pulled into the dark potencies of the unconscious in a deep encounter. Yemoja's ferocity washes over Isabella, strikes her down, mounts her in a drowning vision, then returns her from this under-sided other in a sole and numinous titantic movement. Isabella experiences release from the grip of the sole, full waves of primordial powers, passion relaxes and she now experiences the soulfulness of her own human love. Now neither split between the woman on top or at bottom, Isabella emerges radiant not of something representative of sensual love, but of somebody radiant in reflection of her own conscious and human depths reflecting and refracting what shimmers and showers through the pieces of love's existence, everywhere human, inside and out.
Harrison, Jane Ellen. Epilegomena to the Study of the Greek Religion and Themis: A Study of the Social Origins of the Greek Religions. New Hyde Park: University Books, 1962.
Hillman, James. Healing Fiction. Connecticut: Spring Publications, Inc., 1983. Murphy,
Joseph M.. Santería: An African Religion In America. Massachusetts: Beacon Press, 1988.
Thompson, Robert Farris. Flash of the Spirit: African & Afro-American Art & Philosophy. New York: Vintage Random House, 1984.
Woman On Top. Dir. Fina Torres. Perfs. Penélope Cruz, Murilo Benecio, Jonas Bloch, Mark Feuerstein, Harold Perrinea Jr.. Fox Searchlight, 1999.