By Juan Barquin
By Amy Nicholson
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Travis Cohen
By Juan Barquin
By Stephanie Zacharek
By Amy Nicholson
By Juan Barquin
Standard film-noir-via-Mamet stuff for the most part. But here's the thing. In most Mamet plays and screenplays there are only two types of characters: the one who's getting screwed and the one who is doing the screwing. What makes The Spanish Prisoner interesting is that you're not quite sure of anyone's agenda, including Susan's. While women in Mamet works tend to be outsiders, Susan seems to have dropped in from outer space. Far too eggheaded to come off as a career secretary, she makes our antennae go up from the moment she appears on-screen.
"I'm just here to serve," she tells Joe in a tone that implies anything but. Or take this exchange: To Joe's remark that it's "a funny old world," she says, "Dog my cats," as though that were the most natural reply on Earth. Pidgeon pulls off these sleight-of-hand moments with a muscular grace. As good as she is, though, the actress is just one part of a crackerjack cast that includes veteran Gazzara, Ricky Jay, and Felicity Huffman. (An actress who bears a striking resemblance to Mamet's first wife, Lindsay Crouse, is cast as the bitchy mother of a cranky child in one crucial scene.) But the performances we'll remember most are those of Martin, cast marvelously against type, and Scott, whose character is a deeply likable "Joe."
If anyone disappoints here, it's Mamet, who really isn't stretching. On the other hand, given the creaky workmanship of what comes out of Hollywood these days, garden-variety Mamet is worth lining up for. Dog my cats, indeed. (Saturday, February 7, 7:00 p.m.)
-- Robin Dougherty
Spanish director-writer Montxo Armendariz's Secretos del Corazon (Secrets of the Heart) traverses some of the same emotional territory explored by English director Mike Leigh's 1996 Secrets & Lies, adroitly prying and poking at the things family members keep from (and reveal to) each other, and their reasons: fear or shame or ignorance. But where Leigh unspooled his revelations from the point of view of several different characters, Armendariz concentrates solely on nine-year-old Javi (Andoni Erburu), who never leaves the screen during the film's 108 minutes. An endearing, bucktoothed cinematic cipher, he serves as the audience's guide, and as he discovers his family's secrets, so do we.
Armendariz frames his film (a Spanish-French-Portuguese production) with an engaging, if occasionally too cute opening/closing device: a school play. Set in the early Sixties, the movie begins with chaotic rehearsals for the play, with Javi and his slightly older brother Juan (Alvaro Nagore) sharing the leads in their all-boys' Catholic school's musical parable about a little boy named Chickpea (Javi) who cuts classes and ventures into the woods (the great unknown), where he comes into contact with singing shepherds, flowers, and whatnot, as well as a beneficent wizard (Juan). In real life the brothers trundle between the city of Pamplona, in northern Spain, where they attend school and live with their two unmarried aunts -- serious, prim dressmaker Rosa (Vicky Pena) and earthy, tippling homemaker Maria (Charo Lopez) -- and a not-too-distant village where, during school vacations, they visit their kind, sad-smiled widowed mother (Silvia Munt), who lives with her congenial brother-in-law (Carmelo Gomez) and stolid father-in-law (Joan Valles).
After the school-play intro, Armendariz, who also wrote the screenplay, spends the remainder of his film steering Javi on his own journey through emotional and societal unknowns. The boy witnesses or peripherally experiences most of life's great imponderables. Sex: first between two dogs, later between Maria and an old lover. Murder: a spider, a fly, and Javi as a willful accomplice. Religion: a terrific scene depicting a mass in the country town. Domestic violence: the parents of his best friend Carlos (Inigo Garces). Suicide: Carlos's mom, and, later, someone much closer to Javi.
Wisely, Armendariz presents these encounters with a considered pacing, never overwhelming us, and he almost always depicts them with candor and a distinct lack of fussiness. (The scene in which Javi and Carlos hand over their allowance money to an urchin girl who has promised in return to give them a peek at her underwear rings false, though.) To enhance the "secrets" motif, the filmmaker creates several mysterious forbidden zones: an abandoned house near the boys' school, where, according to Juan, a double murder occurred; the scary cellar at Mom's house, where Javi must go to fetch a bottle of wine in the middle of dinner; and, most important, also at his mother's, the room she tells her sons they must not enter. Shown from Javi's perspective, they're all convincingly mystical or spooky.
Most movies that feature a kid protagonist, this one included, are really about the adults around him or her; the child's activities remain contingent on what happens to the grownups -- how their lives affect his. (For a noteworthy departure, seek out 1996's Ponette, a French film that completely gives itself over to the world of children.) That fact doesn't vex Secretos del Corazn, owing to the cast's uniformly fine performances (notably young Erburu, Valles, Munt, and Lopez) and Armendariz's determination not to sentimentalize the proceedings -- well, at least not too much. The film certainly has its saccharine moments, but it doesn't stray into the maudlin, and despite the fact that the director wraps up everything neatly, the resolutions -- Javi coming to terms with the truths behind the "secrets" -- feel justified, not contrived. (Sunday, February 8, 2:00 p.m.)
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