Dir: Damian Szifron. Argentina. 2003. 90 mins.

The new independent company Aeroplano looks like it has a winner on its hands with the drama comedy The Bottom Of The Sea. This lively but mature piece combines a very individualistic vision with a firm grasp of entertainment value that will make it a strong commercial prospect in Spanish-speaking territories. World premiered in competition at Mar del Plata, it should also build a profile at forthcoming festivals leading to engagements on the international arthouse circuit, particularly at venues skewed to hip younger audiences At Mar del Plata The Bottom Of The Sea won the Silver Ombu for best film from Latin America and Spain.

The story gets off to a gentle start, sketching in the daily life of Ezequiel (Daniel Hendler), a young, callow, self-centred architecture student who has just moved in with his girlfriend (Dolores Fonzi) but is morbidly jealous of her. When he comes home unexpectedly one afternoon, she seems edgy. His worst fears come true as he sees, first a man's shoe on the bedroom floor, then a man's hand emerging stealthily from under the bed to retrieve it.

This ushers in a broadly comic central section. Not letting on what he has seen, Ezequiel spends the evening secretly stalking his rival (Gustavo Garzon). His obsessive, increasingly farcical attempts to sabotage the other man lead him into various shenanigans with mobile phones (in one of the film's many small droll touches, Ezequiel's silly ring tone is The Flight Of The Bumblebee) and finally setting fire to his car.

After a climactic confrontation, an absurd accident ushers in the mellower third act, which sees Ezequiel tunnelling out of his emotional rut and the director finding a way of resolving the conflict on a warm, buoyant note without resorting to happy-ever-after banalities. The title refers to the scuba diving lessons being taken by Ezequel, but has light symbolic overtones which Szifron luckily does not labour.

While this is his first feature, Szifron, a 27-year-old film school graduate, boasts an extensive background in television, notably the popular, 13-part television comedy-drama The Pretenders (Los Simulatores); he is currently working on a second series which airs in Buenos Aires next month. This experience pays dividends in the film's technical polish and the appealing performances he draws from all three of his principals, though the demands of the show also forced him to shoot El Fondo Del Mal in two stages, during June-July 2001 and June-July 2002.

While some critics and audiences may find the interrupted production results in a broken-backed film, Szifron displays confidence in moving between the story's shifting tonal registers. He declares his influences as Bunuel's El, Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut, Scorsese's After Hours and above all Hitchcock and, like these role models, The Bottom Of The Sea moves in unpredictable directions which resist genre definitions

The feature looks handsome on a very tight budget ($200,000 at the exchange rate prevailing when shot), with a bright Super-16mm to 35mm blow-up and some attractive sequences celebrating the upscale architecture of Buenos Aires; Guillermo Guareschi contributes a subtle, moody score.

Prod cos: Aeroplano, Tiresplanos Cine
Int'l sales: Aeroplano
Exec prods: Sebastian Aloi, Nathalie Cabiron
Prod: Aloi
Scr: Szifron
Cinematography: Lucio Bonelli
Prod des: Mariela Ripodas, Lucia Espiro
Ed: Nicolas Goldbart
Music: Guillermo Guareschi
Main cast: Daniel Hendler, Gustavo Garzon, Dolores Fonzi, Daniel Valenzuela.