Dir: Icair Bollain. Spain 2007. 94 mins.
A bittersweet tale of frustrated lives and loves centring on three female private investigators, Mataharis is a decently plotted but decidedly tame follow-up to Icair Bollain's previous film, the convincing 2003 wife-abuse drama Take My Eyes. A leading Spanish actress, Bollain was inspired to step behind the camera after being directed by Ken Loach in Land and Freedom; but while Mataharis shows once again that she has picked up a few useful improv and steadycam tricks from the Warwickshire warrior, the film lacks the fire and passion of her mentor's best work.
In Spain, where the film is due to open soon after its San Sebastian premiere, the catchy female-detectives hook and locally recognisable talent should ensure a decent domestic run, though the Spanish public's disdain for homegrown dramas is never to be underestimated. Unlike Take My Eyes, however, Mataharis probably has little prospect of travelling beyond Spanish-speaking Latin America.
Three women carry the three stories that intertwine in the course of the film. All three work at a private detective agency in Madrid; their bullying boss is male, but it's Carmen, Eva and Ines who do the dirty work, bringing back evidence of marital infidelity and business chicanery for paying clients.
Carmen (Nuria Gonzalez) is the eldest and most experienced of the three. Emotionally numbed by her work, she spends more time talking to her plants than to her taciturn businessman husband, whose only interest seems to be crunching numbers on his computer. Eva (Najwa Nimri) has just returned to work after maternity leave, but is struggling to reconcile the demands of her job with the demands of motherhood. Ines (Maria Vazquez) is the youngest of the three - straight out of private-eye college, she's a gamine, ambitious single girl living in bedsitland.
The film's premise is that the three women spend a lot of time spying on others, but they are unable to see problems closer to home. It's developed most fully in the Eva strand. When she finds text messages from a strange woman on her husband's cellphone, Eva begins to follow him, convinced that he's having an affair.
Ines, meanwhile, is planted as a cleaner in the local office of a large multinational, ostensibly to gather information about two men suspected of stealing company property. Both stories have a mid-term twist, and force our heroines into the kind of ethical decisions private investigators generally avoid.
Carmen's story, involving a flirt with a cuckolded client, is flimsier and has less screen time - though this doesn't prevent Nuria Gonzalez from delivering one of the film's most nuanced performances.
Some Loachian issues are touched on along the way - especially in the Ines story, which develops into a debate about the ethics of outsourcing; while Eva's sense of being trapped by motherhood and gender expectations is sensitively dealt with.
Lucio Godoy's contemporary ambient score compliments the film's edgy, untouristy view of Madrid as a high-density modern metropolis.
Spycam footage and subjective views through windows and windscreens stress the clandestine nature of the work done by these women, as well as their reluctance to cross the barriers, to intervene in a drama that is partly of their own making. But visually this is quite a conventional film jazzed up by a scatter of handheld shots and jump cuts.
All three leads are good - but there's little chemistry between the colleagues, and the thematic parallels probably played better in the pitching sessions than they do on the screen. We end up wishing that Bollain and co-scripter Tatiana Rodriguez had taken just one of their stories - perhaps Eva's - and explored it in greater depth.
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