Monday, September 24, 2012

A Shining Sea: "El Mar" (2000)



This emotionally draining film uses taboo images and violence to make its points, and make the viewer think. In other words, this ain't no Adam Sandler chucklefest.

Two boys, Ramallo and Manuel, and a girl, Francisca, are caught up in the mass executions of the Spanish Civil War. They witness one young friend brutally stab another boy before taking his own life. Over a decade later, an older Ramallo (Roger Casamajor) is sent to a sanitarium run by nuns. Ramallo, like all the tubercular and lung diseased patients, lives in a large room, dormitory style. However, as a patient's health dwindles and they are expected to die, they are sent to a private room numbered 13 for their final days. Ramallo seems very healthy by all accounts. His boastfulness and stories of sexual prowess attracts teen Galindo (Hernan Gonzalez), and the adoration of some other patients.

Ramallo is shocked to find Manuel (Bruno Bergonzini) is also a patient, a pale and drawn man obsessed with praying. Even more shocking is the sight of the beautiful Francisca (Antonia Torrens), now a nun working at the hospital. Just when we think we have Ramallo pegged, his boss Morell (Juli Mira) shows up.

It seems Ramallo has been running black market items for Morell, plus letting Morell do a little plundering of Ramallo in bed. Ramallo gets his own name tattooed on his chest by Alcantara (Simon Andreu), the hospital's maintenance guy. Alcantara also works for Morell, trafficking drugs, and Ramallo steals from him.

This is no typical neo-noir film, despite the seemingly predictable characters. Ramallo quickly drops his bravado after seeing the childhood friends he shared a traumatic experience with. Manuel begins to fall for Ramallo, but Christian guilt is a strong thing, and Manuel eventually goes off the deep end into self abuse and stylized "demonic" possession. Francisca is also unpredictable, a perfectly content Catholic nun who isn't looking to bed down with anyone or break free from her life.

Sexual tensions do build, but so does something I'll call "life tension." The white sterility of the hospital, the constant chirping of the countryside insects, the shocking appearances of blood and death eventually put Ramallo and Manuel into a situation that had me grimacing at the last fifteen minutes of the film.

Director Villaronga's camera never shies from the seamier aspects of this damaged trio's lives, but he does not cross over into exploitation territory, either. Despite the unnaturalness of these characters, their flaws and actions progress in a natural way. You cannot help but get sucked into these people's lives, but I never felt voyeuristic or ashamed of my fascination with their problems.

The entire cast is excellent. A special mention must go to Angela Molina, who plays Alcantara's wife, Carmen. Carmen is a once beautiful middle aged woman trapped in a loveless marriage, yet (once again), Villaronga turns this stock character on its ear and Molina performs this person as if we have never seen a Carmen type character before. The musical score by Javier Navarrete is sumptuous without being overly grandiose, or calling attention to itself. Think Philip Glass, but with variety and emotion.

"El Mar" is unexpected. Everything works, from the imagery of the cross to the story that explains the title ("The Sea" in English). Drop any preconceived notions before you watch it. If you don't, Ramallo, Manuel, and Francisca will quickly rid you of them. A deep, fantastic film. (* * * * *) out of five stars. Watch this movie now!: El Mar