Reading the director's notes for the film, you get the sense of an anarchic sensibility trying to cram a heap of Spanish signifiers together, without seeing a need to string them into a pattern that can convey lucid meanings. Instead, it's all about images and associations. A wealthy, terrible mother who turns into a whore, and a poor whore who is the best mother in Spain. An absent drunk of a father who frightens his daughter away, and a rich, aloof one who steals her from her lovers at the end. Then there's the proud and spoiled son wanting to kill the meathead sex-machine who has seduced his fiancée, and ending up dead instead. I imagine Bigas Luna is happy to arrange these contrasts, and hang his hat on the irony created by them.
I think the surrealist touches and the pot-shots at materialism are better developed in Golden Balls. That film also benefits by having Javier Bardem firmly in the leading role – and with a more confident troupe of actors around him. In Jamón, Jamón Bardem is spared the full force of Luna's satirical instincts – the director is still a bit too enamoured of his hunky hero and the "dishy girl" he pursues.
Where the film excels is in the evocation of place – a poor rural part of Spain dominated by the highway and the trucks that blare across it. The soil is acrid, the jobs are horrible, the bars are cheap and the decor is tacky. Everywhere is overrun with animals, from Penélope Cruz's semi-domesticated pigs to the parrot with a filthy mouth in her mother's bar. The final pietà shot, held as the credits roll, has a herd of sheep coming past the frozen actors, as if to bring their tragedy down to earth. These are human beings with torrid and devastating passions, but they are not that far removed from the animals around them.