When a big film arrives, it’s impossible to miss it: billboards, newspaper adverts, television spots, promotional tie-ins, marketing campaigns which guarantee a huge opening weekend while swallowing as much cash as the film generates over those days, all regardless of the quality of the work itself. For that reason, on the rare occasions when a deserving film slips in under the radar, promoted solely on the strength of the associations of the writer and leading lady, what could be a secret pleasure is better shared.
Neither Oriol Paulo nor Belén Rueda are household names beyond their native Spain where their resumes are primarily in television, but Rueda drew international attention opposite Javier Bardem in 2004’s Mar adentro (The Sea Inside) and with the lead role in 2007’s El Orfanato (The Orphanage) before playing the title role in 2010’s Los ojos de Julia (Julia’s Eyes), written by Paulo with director Guillem Morales.
In The Body, Rueda has again teamed with Paulo, directing his first feature film from a script co-written with Lara Sendim with whom he worked on El cor de la ciutat, a long running and well respected Spanish drama.
A man runs through the forest at night, the only light the torch he carries, straight onto a busy road where he is knocked down, suffering severe injuries. The night guard at the forensic institute, it is uncertain if he will survive, and he is the only witness to the events which occurred a that facility earlier in the evening.
Headed by embittered officer Jaime Peña (veteran actor José Coronado, with over a quarter century of acting experience), just returned from a trip to Berlin to see his estranged daughter, the team find that the internal camera feeds of the institute have been cut, and a single body has been taken, businesswoman Mayka Villaverde, dead of a sudden heart attack and awaiting autopsy.
Suspicion immediately falls on Álex Ulloa, her husband who stands to inherit considerable wealth; Peña observes he has no difficulty speaking of Mayka in the past tense even though she only died that afternoon while he himself still struggles with the death of his wife a decade before, and disregarding vandals and organ harvesting he fears the reason was to prevent an autopsy taking place, making it impossible to determine an exact cause of death.
“Every death is a homicide until proven otherwise,” says the doctor who signed the death certificate, admitting she could have missed something, but if Álex is not demonstrating his grief to the police, it is because he begins to fear that someone is trying to frame him for the murder as incriminating pieces of evidence are laid out to taunt him.
There are obvious reminders of the classic French psychological thriller Les Diaboliques, and though not filmed in black and white, Paulo has chosen a grim palette of bleached and grimy colours for the shadowy halls of the institute, the only colour the flashbacks to the life shared by Álex and Mayke.
As Álex, Hugo Silva, recently seen as one of the pilots in Pedro Almodóvar’s Los amantes pasajeros (I’m So Excited!), is initially unsympathetic, visiting his secret lover within hours of the death of his wife but as Mayke is revealed to be a possessive and demanding woman who toyed with him throughout their marriage he becomes more understandable even as he begins to unravel, questioning whether his conscience is plaguing him or his wife is still playing with him from beyond the grave.
European cinema treats women more respectfully than Hollywood, and though Rueda’s dialogue expresses fears of aging, she remains a beautiful and charismatic performer, here playing a very different character to the sympathetic grieving mother and sister of her two best known roles.
While stretching credulity as it progresses, the film surprises in the final scenes by not only confounding the obvious expectations but by legitimately justifying all that has gone before. With an intelligent script and mature performances, The Body consolidates Rueda as the leading lady of dark Spanish cinema and confirms Paulo as a talent to follow but will appeal not only to horror and thriller fans but also the many aficionados of Scandanavian noir.