Thursday, July 2, 2009

Alejandro Amenábar's Thesis (1996)

Prior to his Foreign Language Academy Award for his genuinely beautiful and moving The Sea Inside (2004), Alejandro Amenábar delivered his quietly creepy (and also quite beautiful) The Others (2001). Prior to that pair, Amenábar made his fantastically trippy and meditative Open Your Eyes (1997) (which Cameron Crowe interestingly reduxxed with Vanilla Sky (2001)). While all of these films have made Alejandro Amenábar a favorite of mine, his earlier mystery, Thesis (1996) ranks as possibly my favorite film of his ("favorites" being a truly arbitrary label for me, however). Thesis is above all a very engrossing and intriguing mystery, richly-packed thematically but in a subtle way, and a tremendous amount of fun. Ángela (Ana Torrent) is sitting on the stopped subway train, because there has been an accident. Everyone has to disembark and take another train, but the conductor is going to make the transition difficult for the passengers: the conductor reveals that the actual "accident" on the tracks is a dead body split in two. The passengers are going to have a more difficult time fighting their curiosity than rush hour foot traffic; and no one is more curious than Ángela, who breaks the queue, to get a peek. "Stop being so morbid," shouts the conductor. Unfortunately for Ángela, she cannot help it. Ángela is a university student working on her thesis about "audiovisual violence." "Why would you pick such a subject," asks Professor Figueroa (Miguel Picazo), also her advisor. In so many words, she says that she is curious about the effect that it has upon viewers and the culture-at-large. In fact, would Figueroa mind going to the archives ("where they keep the more 'extreme' material") and getting Ángela some truly sick stuff to watch. Figueroa, knowing that he is breaking some unspoken rule by performing this task, agrees. In the archive, Figueroa takes a twist and a turn around the neat and categorized stacks of videocassettes into an alcove, almost cave-like, to find an unlabeled shelf littered with videocassettes. He hurriedly takes just one and goes to a viewing classroom. The following day, Figueroa doesn't show up to teach his classes and Ángela finds him, dead in the viewing room. Whatever he was watching was clearly related to his death. Ángela tells no one that she found the dead professor nor that she stole the videocassette which he was viewing. What's so extreme? Film geek and genre fan, who especially loves the hard stuff, Chema (Fele Martínez) shows Ángela, after she affirmatively seeks out his geeky expertise in the matter for her thesis, a Faces of Death-like film with apparent "real-life" violence. While she's appropriately disgusted by Chema's collection, Figueroa's archival videocassette is a little more genuine and a lot more disturbing: a snuff tape, made also seemingly by someone in at the university and its victim is a young woman student.Truth be told, Ángela is more obsessively curious about the dark side of life than anything else. She has an abnormally yet sweet stable home life: married and happy parents, a cute and bubbly sister, and a nice home (for which she gets extra kudos for having a My Own Private Idaho poster on her wall). Ángela is also quite smart and resourceful but extremely fearful. When she gets the first opportunity to view Figueroa's death-causing cassette, she chickens out on watching the images and just hears the sickening audio. Above all, Ángela is quite lonely: just as her curious side does with real life, she's looking for more interesting people who engage her in the most unusual and unexpected way. Chema becomes her most reluctant investigative partner in the mystery. Chema's an uber-geek (as it takes one to know one), and their relationship provides some of Thesis's comedic moments and dialogue. Watching these two together is like an old-time romantic comedy, although a romance never blossoms. Ángela is smitten with mysterious and quite handsome Bosco (Eduardo Noriega). After Chema discovers the camera source of the video in the snuff tape, Ángela spies Bosco using one in the break area at the university. Like a shark, Bosco comes on quite strong to Ángela, even showing up at her house and completely charming her family. Like most of her encounters, she's quite afraid of Bosco but develops a very obsessive attraction to him.Amenábar drafts and executes quite the mystery with Thesis. Although there are only a handful of suspects to the mystery, Amenábar provides enough twists and turns to make it interesting, and the conclusion is pretty satisfying. Along the way, throughout Thesis, Amenábar drops in the background his cultural criticism towards the media and our obsession with media violence (in all its forms, news, films, etc.). None of the criticism is trite or preachy. One professor expounds to his film students about why the American film industry is so far ahead of the Spanish industry: it's because it gives the audience, above all, what it wants. Is that what cinema, from anywhere, supposed to provide? Amenábar poses the question without a fixed answer. Appropriately, Amenábar shoots Thesis at its modern university in present-day Spain in clinical white light (as did Dario Argento in Tenebre (1982)) with the visual flares and atmospherics saved for the suspenseful moments. Later fanciful films would come from Amenábar, but Thesis shows a real flair for the classical. While I am eagerly awaiting Agora (2009), Thesis really should be viewed by fans of Alejandro Amenábar and those who like a good mystery.

5 comments:

Aaron said...

Sounds interesting. If it's better than Open Your Eyes then it must be REALLY good.

Hans A. said...

Aaron, I wouldn't say it's better than Open Your Eyes, but Thesis is a lot more fun. It's lighter and more genre-related than Eyes. Thesis is Amenabar having fun and being playful; whereas, Eyes is more intense and focused, as is The Others.

Aaron said...

Off-topic: Since I'm still covering French films for the next week or so, I took your advice and ordered Sheitan. I found a copy on Amazon for pretty cheap, should be in the mail next week.

Neil Fulwood said...

'Open Your Eyes' is probably Amenabar's most interesting and experimental film to date, and 'The Others' his most classical, but 'Thesis' has a sense of verve and wit that makes it mordantly entertaining over multiple viewings.

Great post. You've done justice to an often overlooked film!

Hans A. said...

Thnx, Neil. I've appreciate your comments and your reading. I've also quite enjoyed your recent takes on old American gangster pictures. Great stuff.