Dir. Christopher Hampton. UK/Spain, 2002. 107 min.

If there is anything disturbing in this misconceived project by celebrated scriptwriter and occasional director Christopher Hampton, it is not its contents, though it should have been, but the simple fact that an experienced person like him, who only last year was highly praised for his adaptation of The Quiet American, could take such a fall. Adapted from an award-winning novel by Lawrence Thornton, this picture miraculously manages to do everything wrong, and when the subject is something as painful, disturbing and recent as the personal tragedy of many thousands of Argentineans arrested, tortured and exterminated by the military junta there, it is easy to understand the loud boos that greeted it at the Venice press and industry screening. Though the intentions may have been admirable, this story about a director of a children's theatre whose wife disappears after writing an article attacking the government, and who subsequently turns into a clairvoyant of sorts, visualising the fate of the junta's victims, conveys neither the horror of the deeds perpetrated at the time nor the terror of those who had to live them. At its worst, which it is much of the time, it is a lame and often offensive attempt to blend magical and brutal realism in order to deal with a fashionable subject in melodramatic terms, a far cry from earlier efforts to tackle the same theme, such as the Oscar-winning The Official Story or the more recent Garage Olympo. Straight to television, is the most merciful road this picture can hope for at the present time.

The meanderings of Carlos Rueda (Banderas), looking for his wife, Cecilia (Thompson), who was seized by the regime's band of goons, move between familiar cliches and misplaced effusions of dark poetical inspiration. Allowing his life to be ruled by his visions despite the protests of his partner Silvio (Blades) who refuses to believe in these ESP phenomena, Rueda blindly courts each catastrophe that befalls not only him, but those close the him, like his adolescent daughter, Teresa (Dolera), and Silvio himself, who are both soon abducted as well. The script makes little dramatic sense, something one would expect Hampton to be very conscious of, and the ending is one of the most ludicrous in years, with Carlos and Cecilia finding each other in the midst of a carnival, for the final clinch.

But that is just one of many wrong choices made in this film. To begin with, not only does it speak English but all actors are expected to sport a heavy Latin American accent, which not only rings false (despite the fact that for Banderas and Blades this is natural) but lends the proceedings an unwelcome air of carnival. The casting must have been done by someone who had not read the material and picked the most unsuitable actors for each part, starting with Banderas and Thompson in the lead, and down to John Wood and Claire Bloom, two very respectable British actors who play an old Jewish couple but couldn't look less Jewish or tormented by Holocaust memories, for the life of them.

The direction is painfully contrived, whether it is in Emma Thompson's desperate attempt to emulate a Francis Bacon painting of a silent scream that looks so terribly calculated one wonders more about how she planned it than the suffering of the character she plays. And it is difficult to imagine something less appropriate for Banderas to do than lying on his back and playing his guitar pensively, at one of the most dramatic turns in the film.

There is nothing wrong with claiming that the only way to combat horror and make sure that it is not repeated is to remember it in all its details, nor with the parallel drawn with the Nazi regime in Germany or with the statement that dictators will be toppled by their lack of imagination. What's wrong is the way it is said here.

Prod co: Tide Rock Entertainment, Mike's Movies, Green Moon Productions
Prods: Geoffrey C. Lands. Michael Peyser, Diane Sillan Isaacs, Santiago Pozo
Int'l Sales: Myriad Pictures, Arenas Entertainment
Scr: Christopher Hampton, based on a Lawrence Thornton novel
Cinematography: Guillermo Navarro
Ed: George Akers
Prod des: Barbara Perez-Solerot
Costumes: Sabina Deigeler
Music: George Fenton
Sound: Dennis McTaggart
Main cast: Antonio Banderas, Emma Thompson, Ruben Blades, Maria Canals, Kuno Becker, Leticia Dolera, John Wood, Claire Bloom, Anton Lesser