Dir: Ramon Salazar. Spain. 2001. 130mins.

Some Spanish critics have seen Ramon Salazar as Pedro Almodovar's heir, and Stones certainly looks on paper like a sequel to the latter's 1991 comedy High Heels: it tells five women's interlocking stories through their feelings about their feet. The female-dominated subject, a light scattering of erotic detail and the film's several simpatico male gay characters probably encouraged the comparison. But any hopes that this might be a riot of fabulous shoes and kinky foot fetishes are swiftly dashed when Stones declares itself early in the game as a beautifully crafted but solemn and sluggish relationships drama, with none of Almodovar's campy wit. It could have limited appeal domestically to a middlebrow female audience, but has minimal international crossover potential.

The title (not explained within the film itself) comes from a story which director Ramon Salazar heard about a business conference, at which one speaker filled a glass jar with large stones. When there seemed room for no more, he poured in a lot of smaller pebbles. The ponderous moral, in life as in business: put the big stones in place first, and only then build the details around them. The film's lonely, man-less characters have put off resolving their own major emotional issues until it is almost too late.

Voluptuous Adela (San Juan) is a tough cookie who presides over a brothel on the outskirts of Madrid and is writing a novel that will teach men the correct way to stimulate the clitoris. Although she has flat feet, she's persuaded by a Argentinian smoothie to learn the tango. Over-protective of her mentally retarded, grown-up daughter, Anita (Cervera), she becomes resentful when the latter strikes up a friendship with a young male carer.

Leire (Nimri), a failed shoe designer, works in a swanky shop, from which she steals shoes to wear to nightclubs. Maricarmen (Pena) drives her late husband's taxi, a job which gives her bunions, and struggles to raise her two stepchildren, a shy, small son and a resentful teenage daughter.

Finally there is Isabel (Molina) who is driven by the boredom of a stale marriage to amass more new shoes than Imelda Marcos - and, by her masochistic guilt feelings, always to buy them at least one size too small. Then she meets a chiropodist who can read people's destinies from the soles of their feet, and, as if that sideline wasn't enough, also claims he can bring a woman to orgasm by foot massage. The five characters seem at first unrelated, but their paths cross repeatedly.

If Stones is less entertaining than all this suggests, it's because Salazar fails to develop any narrative momentum, while an over-long and explicit ending struggles needlessly to tie up all the loose ends. Even the foot leitmotif turns out to be a cute gimmick with nowhere much to go. On a technical level, the film is a stand-out, with luminous photography and lovely lyrical music by Pascal Gaigne. But, at well over two hours, it's a size 36 idea wallowing about in a size 42 script. Radical pruning of the latter stretches by at least 20 minutes would inject it with some zip, but, as it stands, pedestrian is really the only word to describe it.

Prod co: Alquimia Cinema.
Co-prods: Ensuena, Telemadrid, Via Digital, Antena 3 Television.
Int'l sales: Hispano Fox Film.
Prod: Francisco Ramos.
Scr: Ramon Salazar.
Cinematography: David Carretero.
Prod des: Montse Sanz.
Ed: Teresa Font.
Music: Pascal Gaigne.
Main cast: Antonio San Juan, Najwa Nimri, Vicky Pena, Monica Cervera, Angela