Dir. Gerardo Herrero. Spain/UK/Cuba/Portugal/Italy/France. 2003. 128 min.
A political thriller based on a true story that delivers its answers before it asks the questions must be some kind of novelty. Not to mention that after establishing all the facts and pinpointing all the heroes and the villains of the story without the least bit of doubt, it tells the audience at the end that the details of the actual incident have remained an unsolved mystery. Whether this has been done intentionally by Spanish producer/director Herrero working from a novel by Manuel Vazquez Montalban, the result is a limp story, dramatically predictable and devoid of human interest, overplayed and under-edited, far too long for its own good and ultimately delivering nothing more than a long series of suspicions. Even if true, these are completely defused by the film's final title, indicating that Jesus Galindez, an exiled writer and a leader of the Basque Nationalist Party disappeared from New York without a trace in 1956 and no solid evidence has been produced since to explain his fate. Trying to revive the case 30 years later, Herrero's ambitiously elaborate multi-national production will leave most audiences wondering, like some of the film's characters, why they need to know more than they are told in the first reel. A brief theatrical career in territories where Keitel and Burrows carry some weight should be followed by a quick exit to cable and television.
The story, outlined by veteran Rafael Azcona and written by Luis Marias, is told on three parallel lines. The first takes place in the later eighties when Muriel Colber (Burrows), an American who goes to Spain in order to research her history doctorate thesis on "the ethics of political resistance", with the mystery surrounding the disappearance of Jesus Galindez as her main subject. The second shows Robards (Keitel), a veteran American secret agent who is determined to prevent her from completing her investigation, while a third goes back 30 years to state in no uncertain terms what the film makers believe has happened to Galindez (Fernandez), from the kidnapping in his New York flat, to his being tortured in a San Domingo jail and finally executed there after a mock trial directed by Trujillo in person.
Proceeding in this fashion puts Muriel's efforts to find solid historical proof of what she senses must have been Galindez' fate at a great disadvantage, for the audience has already been told all of it in great detail and is fully conscious of the causes and effects and of the persons involved, long before she finds out about them. Thus, the picture becomes painfully predictable, her walking blindly into one trap after another, with the blind obstinacy of an American who thinks her passport is a safe permit to go anywhere and do anything when everybody else knows better, leading to an ending that is only too obvious and was to be expected at a much earlier stage.
Adding to the psychological motivations, the fact that Muriel had been previously in love with a Chilean photographer who had disappeared back home just like Galindez, that Robards is a cold-blooded, scheming, chess-playing addict and that Galindez is a dedicated Basque nationalist, an academic committed to the truth and rejecting all compromises, only stresses the melodramatic simplification of what could otherwise be an ambivalent, richly multi-facetted story. For the script does bring up many of the various options advanced to provide answers to the mystery itself - like the possibility that Galindez was an American agent, that he had not been killed by Trujillo but went on to live under an assumed name in Mexico, that he was selling everybody out with the exception of his beloved Basques, and so on. But since all this is introduced as a pack of obvious lies concocted by the CIA, the picture doesn't even bother to refute them, so confident is it of the facts already displayed on the screen.
Ambivalence is one quality this film lacks all through. Characters are instantaneously revealed for what they are, and no pretence will change that impression, whether it is Muriel's insistence on her objectivity, which does not exist or Robards' ridiculously repeated statement that he had wanted to be a poet all his life. As for the rest of the characters, they are treated like pawns in Robards' chess game, and if the picture indicates that the game itself is still in a stalemate position, the picture is not.
Burrows plays Muriel on one note as an excited, highly-strung innocent abroad, Keitel walks through his part with the exhausted air of someone who has already been there too often, and the rest of the cast wears its identity on its sleeve. All this may serve as a timely reminder of American politics in Latin America, but not really as an in-depth investigation of the case in question.
Prod co: Tornasol, Ensueno Films, Continental Producciones, Greenpoint Productions, ICAIC, Madragoa Films, Storie Srl, DMBV Films
Prod: Gerardo Herrero, Javier Lopez-Blanco, Mariela Besuievsky, Teddy Villalba
Int'l Sales: Vision International
Scr: Luis Marias from treatment by Rafael Azcona, based on novel by Manuel Vazquez Monatlban
Cinematography: Alfredo Mayo
Ed: Carmen Frias
Prod des: Luis Valles, Wolfgang Burmann
Costumes: Lena Mossum
Music: Patrick Doyle
Sound: Gilles Ortion, Paul Carr, Arturo Garcia
Main cast: Safran Burrows, Harvey Keitel, Eduard Fernandez, Guillermo Toledo, Reynaldo Miravalles, Joel Angelino, Jorge Ali, John Furey, Hugo Reyes, Mario Limonta, Chete Liera, Erique Almirante