Dial S for Slick

This Spanish thriller has the style if not the substance

What's the movie world coming to? Time was, if you wanted flash, dash, and empty-headed excitement you looked for them in the latest Hollywood bonbon, not in those sober, slow-paced films from Europe. Yet here comes Nadie conoce a nadie, a stylish Spanish thriller that pays deliberate homage to Hollywood values: It's short on plausibility or narrative logic but long on atmosphere, pace, and visual appeal.

Some of that appeal lies in the gorgeous setting -- the city of Seville during its ancient Easter celebration, Semana Santa. Many film fans, however, would argue that the film's prime eye candy is its star, Eduardo Noriega, whose sensitive good looks recall Marcello Mastroianni in his early days. Noriega plays Simón Cárdenas, a wannabe novelist with writer's block who's stuck in a dead-end job creating newspaper crossword puzzles. Simón is well aware he's drifting through his life with no real relationships. He doesn't really connect with his slacker roommate Sapo (Jordi Mollá) or his bartender girlfriend Ariadna (Paz Vega). But Simón's ennui is jolted when he receives a threatening message on his telephone answering machine: He must include the word "adversary" in his next puzzle.

Simón shrugs off the demand but later accedes to it. Soon afterward a series of terrorist acts erupt during the crowded city's Holy Week processions. Feeling guilty but oddly energized by these events, Simón tries to find out if there was a connection between the attacks and his crossword puzzle. In his search he encounters a newspaper reporter (Natalia Verbeke), who joins his quest. Before long he discovers what seems to be a terrorist conspiracy that may involve people he knows (or doesn't really know). What ensues is a complex puzzle of a plot that leads to a series of twists and surprises right out of Hitchcock.

That's a backhanded compliment. Nadie conoce a nadie is so indebted to the Hollywood suspense genre that much of it evokes a kind of cinematic déjà vu. Our hero becomes tangled in a romantic dilemma with an elusive woman. He tends to get knocked out and beaten up. He's prone to Freudian dreams. He's chased and gives chase through crowded streets amid colorful parades. He's dazed, confused, betrayed, and flayed in the best thriller tradition. While much of this is engaging, and at points even gripping, there's little to the tale that feels original.

Produced in 1999, Nadie marked the feature-film directing debut of Spanish wonder boy Mateo Gil, who was 27 years old at the time. Gil, who adapted the story from a novel by Juan Bonilla, seems to have a lock on the Spanish suspense drama. He co-wrote two other Spanish hits, Tesis and Abre los ojos, then co-scripted the latter's recent American remake, Vanilla Sky.

Nadie is a fine debut for Gil, who grabbed a Goya nomination for his work. Seville, with its claustrophobic cobblestone streets and Old World-ultramodern architectural contrasts, becomes a genuine character in Gil's story. He's very strong on pace and mood, aided by cinematographer Javier G. Salmones and production designer Javier Po. Like Hitchcock, Gil is also a clever game-player, setting up casual visual clues throughout the story that pay off later when the mysteries are revealed. But some of the staging is blunt and uninspired; at times Gil seems less concerned with the texture of his actors' performances than with connecting the plot dots.

Noriega (Plata quemada, Tesis, Abre los ojos) seems poised to assume the role of Spain's next Antonio Banderas. His screen persona is darkly handsome, lithe and vulnerable, a cuddly variation on the Latin lover. Mollá adds humor and mystery as his strange roommate, while Vega, who turned heads recently in Sex and Lucia, takes the Penelope Cruz role as the sensitive, sexy girlfriend.

The film is being released by Venevision International, the Coral Gables-based division of the Cisneros media empire whose mandate is to release or re-release Spanish-language features to the American Hispanic market and foreign-film aficionados. The company still appears to be searching for a winning strategy. Some of its movies are lightweight, Americanized fare like Nadie. Others are bolder, more original projects like the current Colombian release Bolivar soy yo. A few years ago these films would have appeared exclusively at festivals or for a quick run at an independent art cinema. Now they're showing at multiplexes with longer screening schedules, which puts them on a more equal exhibition footing with Hollywood products, despite the fact that they lack the marketing machinery and myriad product tie-ins that drive the blockbusters. (As an aside, Venevision could use a dose of common sense in future release schedules. Opening a film about terrorism a few days before the first anniversary of September 11 isn't a particularly bright move.) It's too early to judge if Venevision can crack the U.S. market, but how we in Miami -- the company's testing ground -- respond will be watched closely. Whatever happens in this latest chapter of movie-distribution history will happen here.

 
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