Dir: Iciar Bollain. 2003.Spain. 106mins.
This realist take on domestic abuse was the local favourite at last week's Donostia-San Sebastian International Film Festival, where rumour had it the film would have picked up more than the deserved best actor and actress prizes if festival rules didn't preclude giving a single competition film more than two awards. Even without a star name like Javier Bardem, Take My Eyes (Te Doy Mis Ojos) should be able to follow in the footsteps of last year's San Sebastian hit-with-a-social-conscience, Mondays In The Sun (Los Lunes Al Sol), also sold internationally by Sogepaq. Take My Eyes may not cross far beyond arthouse audiences abroad, but it boasts all the ingredients to attract adult film-goers around the world and enjoy a healthy life in ancillary markets. It will also help propel its talents, both behind the camera and in front, to greater recognition.
To Bollain's and co-scripter Alicia Luna's credit, Take My Eyes deftly dramatises the ripple effects of domestic abuse without lingering on the actual physical violence or painting the abuser as a black-and-white villain. Instead, their flesh-and-blood characters are full of contradictions: the abused woman who has lost sight of her own personality and still retains faith that the man she married will reappear; the self-loathing husband who resorts to violence despite his best intentions to change; and the bystander friends, family and social resources who provide little assistance and sometimes outright deny the situation at hand.
The film opens abruptly with Pilar (Marull) frantically packing a suitcase, waking her young son and fleeing her working-class apartment in the dark. Her fear is palpable, and symbolised in details such as turning up at her sister's apartment in slippers. The opening scene creates enough tension to make viewers as apprehensive as Pilar of the eventual emergence of her husband Antonio (Tosar).
Staying on with her sister Ana (a solid Pena), Pilar takes a job as a ticket-seller at a local cathedral, where a group of new female friends - and a new-found passion for art history - eventually set her on a path of self-discovery. When Antonio begins showering her with gifts and loving attention, she starts seeing him again on the sly, eventually moving back in with him.
Meanwhile, providing some of the film's most poignant and laugh-provoking scenes, Antonio attends group therapy sessions for men who abuse their partners. Sergi Calleja offers an excellent supporting performance as the compassionate yet straight-talking therapist, but Spanish men as a whole don't come off well in Take My Eyes, where the model of the ideal husband is embodied by Ana's boyfriend John (Mooney), a table-clearing, dish-washing foreigner.
Bollain's style and subject matter - her last film was 1999's bittersweet Flowers From Another World about immigrant women and rural Spanish bachelors seeking love and mutual benefits - are reminiscent of Ken Loach's, with whom she has worked as an actress (Land And Freedom) and about whom she has written a book, only with an insider's look at the female psyche.
Take My Eyes is set against the gorgeous backdrop of Toledo but, as with the film's characters, Bollain avoids exploiting it for folkloric or sentimental effect. Performances are excellent across the board, with Tosar standing out as the husband who alternates between silver-tongued lover and ruthless brute.
Int'l sales: Sogepaq
Prod cos: La Iguana, Alta Produccion, TVE, Canal+
Dist (Sp): Alta Films
Exec prod: Santiago Garcia de Leaniz
Assoc prod: Enrique Gonzalez Macho
Cinematography: Carles Gusi
Music: Alberto Iglesias
Ed: Angel Hernandez Zoido
Main cast: Laia Marull, Luis Tosar, Candela Pena, Rosa Maria Sarda, Kiti Manver, Sergi Calleja