Dir: Antonio Hernandez. Sp-Arg. 2001. 118mins

Antonio Hernandez's ensemble feature is a dramatic gem, a beautifully scripted and acted film with a glossy look and universal tale that has the capacity to move audiences anywhere. It represents a marketing challenge to distributors due to its complex storyline and straddling of genres, but it is still worth buyers at the Cannes market having a look at this Spanish-Argentine co-production, which is being sold by Sogepaq. Certainly, it merits a wider release internationally: the somewhat sluggish first act may deter some, but then an emotional rollercoaster kicks in after half-an-hour, and from that point on both plot and performances prove gripping. The City Of No Limits attracted strong buzz after its appearance in Panorama sidebar at the Berlin Film Festival, despite leaving a light footprint on the Spanish box office. Still showing, it was released on 51 prints and has now taken $549,000 since opening in late February.

Victor (Sbaraglia) has come home to Europe after many years living in Argentina. He arrives at the airport with his girlfriend Eileen (Bredice), where they are met by brothers Luis (Alvarez) and Alberto (Casanovas), and Alberto's wife Carmen (Fernandez). The entire clan - which also includes mother Marie (Chaplin), Luis's wife Pilar (Ozores) and Luis's babysitter-cum-lover Bea (Estarreado) - has gathered in Paris, where their father Max (Fernan-Gomez) lies dying in a hospital. All the characters are wrapped up in their own agendas and deceptions, too busy to pay any attention to Max's apparently paranoid delusions. However, when Max entrusts Victor with his cryptic cries for help, his youngest son sets out on the trail of Rancel (Alcon), a mystery man whom the old man desperately needs to find before he dies.

The feature is not well served by awkward pacing and an uncertainty in tone in the first act, with multiple characters to introduce and music coming on too strong to build suspense before the story calls for it. But once protagonist Victor takes centre stage and begins to unfold Max's mystery, all the extraneous action melts into the background.

Hernandez has gathered together a cast of some of the most solid characters actors available in Spain and Argentina, and he has given them meaty characters to bring to life, full of sadness and humour and credible foibles. While highlighting any one performance unfairly diminishes the others, clearly it is Argentine Sbaraglia, so underused in recent Spanish hit Intacto - which opens Critics Week at Cannes - who carries the film and holds his own across veterans Fernan-Gomez and Chaplin.

The layered and complex script, which the director co-wrote with Enrique Braso, feels like a labour of love; indeed, Hernandez has dedicated City 'to my father.' The film flirts with fantasy, as per Max's confused state, but is ultimately a realist tale which grapples with knotty human issues like courage and cowardice, loyalty to people and principles, love, family, marriage, sexuality, death. The director and his cinematographer, Unax Mendia, take a risk and use edgier photography than might have been expected for a film of this type, playing with zooms and perspectives. That it comes off is because it is used to serve the story. They have also nicely exploited the rarity of a Spanish film set in Paris, with grand birds-eye, street- and Seine-level views of the City Of Lights.

Prod cos: Zebra Producciones, Iconica, Patagonik Film Group
Sp dist:
Warner Sogefilms
Int'l sales: Sogepaq
Exec prods:
Antonio Saura, Jose Nolla
Antonio Hernandez, Enrique Braso
Cinematography: Unax Mendia
Prod des:
Gabriel Carrascal
Javier Lafaill, Patricia Enis
Music: Victor Reyes
Main cast: Leonardo Sbaraglia, Fernando Fernan-Gomez, Geraldine Chaplin, Ana Fernandez, Adriana Ozores, Roberto Alvarez, Alex Casanovas, Monica Estarreado, Alfredo Alcon