[Film Review] Thesis (1996)

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English Title: Thesis
Original Title: Tesis
Year: 1996
Country: Spain
Language: Spanish
Genre: Horror, Mystery, Thriller
Director: Alejandro Amenábar
Alejandro Amenábar
Mateo Gil
Music: Alejandro Amenábar, Mariano Marín
Cinematography: Hasn Burmann
Editor: María Elena Sáinz de Rozas
Ana Torrent
Fele Martínez
Eduardo Noriega
Xabier Elorriaga
Miguel Picazo
Nieves Herranz
Rosa Campillo
Paco Hernández
Rating: 7.3/10

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Spanish filmmaker Alejandro Amenábar’s feature debut, a juvenilia made when he was only 23, THESIS robustly probes an ordinary person’s often latent ghoulish proclivity, and dexterously twins it with his/her suppressed sexuality, after all, Freud will second, death and sex, a dyad that forever fascinates us (thinking about la petite mort) until we kick the bucket.

Angela (Torrent), a university student studying cinema in Madrid, is preparing her thesis on today’s pervasive audiovisual violence and its influence, after her professor Figueroa (Picazo) apparently dies from asthma while watching a mysterious tape he filches from a hidden chamber in the college’ video library, Angela secretly snatches the tape and then brings it to fellow student Chema (Martínez in his feature film debut, plumb unrecognizable from Almodóvar’s BAD EDUCATION, 2004), what is on the tape is actually a snuff film, showing a man wearing a balaclava mask torturing and then killing a pinioned young woman, whom Chema identifies as Vanessa, a student who vanishes two years earlier and has never been found since.

Playing detectives to get to the bottom of the heinous crime, Angela and Chema make an unlikely pair, soon clues lead to a potential suspect Bosco (Noreiga, a real corker in oozing irresistible sinisterness out of his pretty-boy persona), a student who is in possess of the same model of the camera that shoots the said film. But much to Chema’s displeasure, while bird-dogging Bosco, Angela also develops a feeling for him despite herself, exculpating him, even wallowing in a masochistic fantasy in which sex and death are just one step after another.

Although purporting an academic reason to delve into imagery of extreme brutality, Angela, a self-claimed violence naysayer, is like most of us, cannot resist the temptation of its abnormal beckoning, rightly foreshadowed by the opening scene of an accident in the metro station. More often than not, one’s mounting curiosity outstrips ingrown revulsion, from firstly darkening the image to leave only its spine-tingling sound to be heard, to taking a tantalized quick glance of its gruesome content from the chinks of her fingers, until imagining herself being held under the same dire plight (but with carnal gratification), Angela’s gradual recapitulation to it charts an eloquent process of our primeval capacity of assimilation and eroticizing anything that can arouse our libido, ergo, justifies the perverse market of snuff films, like professor Jorge Castro (Elorriaga) exhorts: filmmaker should always give what the audience wants.

Shot in a flyweight budget apparently crimps the narrative complexity, besides two unremarkable red herrings (an evil professor, a jealous ex-girlfriend), this whodunit entirely oscillates between incriminating either Chema or Bosco, two young men who either openly or covertly battle for Angela’s affection, one is a nerdy ghoul, who also turns out to be a stalker, another a personable charmer who sweeps her off her feet at their first sight, her choice is not difficult to divine, predictably, a wrong move will once again, imperil her to the same fate of Vanessa, and the final twist is fairly well-worn.

Ana Torrent, the young protagonist in Carlos Saura’s RAISE RAVENS (1976) and Victor Erice’s THE SPIRIT OF THE BEEHIVE (1973), seizes on a rare leading role when transitioning into a full-fledged grownup, provides a poised impression characterized by either rational brusqueness or irrational obduracy, potently boosting Amenábar’s strikingly entertaining fare shored up by his top-line acumen and snazzy craft.

referential entries: Amenábar’s OPEN YOUR EYES (1997, 7.9/10), THE SEA INSIDE (2004, 8.3/10), AGORA (2009, 6.2/10).

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