December 13, 2013
Long-awaited Séptimo: nick of time
Film critics are an insatiable lot. If a film is overlong, they will say some trimming would have done the trick. If — very rarely — a movie is deemed too short, they will complain about gaps and voids, what they would have otherwise referred to as unnecessary “padding.” In both cases, film editors normally take the rap, along with the director, regardless of whether they have final cut right or not.
The new thriller Séptimo, starring Ricardo Darín and Spain’s Belén Rueda and directed by her fellow countryman Patxi Amexcua, is a strange case study in the convoluted byways of narrative device and the execution of a project, from storyboard to finished product. The storyline is simple enough, though too predictable, but once director Amexcua sets the well-oiled mechanism in motion, he achieves the film’s stated aim: telling a gripping story with valid resources.
Séptimo, eagerly expected by audiences after Darín’s formidable turns in the drama-thrillers The Secret In Their Eyes (2009) and Thesis on a Homicide (2013), focuses on a recently divorced couple (Sebastián, Ricardo Darín; and Delia, Belén Rueda), and their two children, plus a host of minor characters — a suspicious building superintendent (Luis Ziembrowski), a corrupt neighbour-chief of police (Osvaldo Santoro), an unscrupulous businessman (Jorge D’Elía), and a loyal friend (Guillermo Arengo).
The way Séptimo starts — a routine day in the life of recently divorced, single and free Sebastián — turns into a nightmare when, visiting his children and taking them out for a postcard-style day out, the two siblings disappear on their way down the stairs to the ground floor, while daddy rides the elevator. It’s a game they’ve played before, but Delia, the mother, has warned the children to be careful, lest they trip on the marble steps and get hurt. Sebastián, more playful than his ex wife, decides to race the children to the lobby, from where they will depart for a day out with daddy. But the children vanish from sight. The super has not seen them, no one has, apparently. The only plausible conclusion is that they’ve been snatched up for ransom or revenge.
The ordeal and the race for time — two hours, exactly — begin with the usual round of neighbours’ apartments, school, relatives’ homes and even people loosely connected with the family. The frenzied search for the missing children starts, and we’re all set to enjoy a conventional but pulsating plotline. Sebastián, a businessman with no earthly preoccupation other than his and his family’s wellbeing, embarks on a nerve-racking — supposedly so — investigation and manhunt, as well as a feasible way of getting the US$ 100,000 ransom money needed to get the children back to safety.
Both the storyline and the development of Séptimo bring to mind Roman Polanski’s Frantic (1988), and the Johnny Depp star vehicle Nick of Time (1995). In both films, a clock ticks away the hours as a befuddled man runs a desperate race against time to recover their loved ones. The structure is simple — once the scene is set, the action is on, once the climax and the dénouement are over, it’s time to loosen up and bring your loved ones together for a good, relieving embrace.
Séptimo strictly follows the rules and conventions of a good thriller, it’s well written, with fine dialogue and believable situations, punctuated by a score that sets the pace and rhythm for every twist and turn in the plot. Acting-wise, Mr Darín maintains the standards of quality expected from an actor of his stature — he can be cheekily playful, tender, unexpectedly resolute, expertly transforming his schemata in the few hours that elapse from the children’s disappearance to the final twist. Ms Rueda, meanwhile, dutifully stays in the background until the final revelation comes. This is a scene-stealing moment for Ms Rueda.
However, there is something definitely wrong with Séptimo: a simple storyline need not be simplistic, and Séptimo is definitely simplistic in that almost nothing in it, apart from its fine execution in artistic and technical terms, is resolved with the analytical profundity of a good whodunnit and the break-neck speed of an action-packed romp.
Running at a reasonable 88 minutes, Séptimo, even if well rounded, rushes off to an abrupt end, leaving viewers with the — also reasonable — sensation that something’s sorely missing, and it’s not the “padding” we’re talking about here. Rather, it’s the understandable need for tension and ensuing calmness that Séptimo fails to provide. And it’s precisely the precipitated end, even if well performed, that leaves viewers asking themselves when the next instalment will come. The interminably long end credits further increase the perception that too much has been made out of this thriller, that one or two subplots wouldn’t have been amiss, that the amazingly large number of producers and units on both sides of the Atlantic are suspiciously overabundant, and that Séptimo is ultimately reduced to two main characters — Sebastián and Delia — while the rest are painted in the background.
But thanks to Mr Darín’s well-deserved powerhouse status, the balance will ultimately tip in Séptimo’s favour, highlighting its good points — of which there’s plenty — and ignoring its pitfalls, of which there’s no shortage either. As proof that any movie starring Mr Darín draws in the crowds, Séptimo will be released tomorrow on 213 screens around Argentina.
Séptimo. Written by: Patxi Amezcua, Alejo Flah. Directed by: Patxi Amezcua. Starring: Ricardo Darín, Belén Rueda, Luis Ziembrowski, Osvaldo Santoro, Jorge D’Elía, Guillermo Arengo. Distributed by: Fox. Running time: 88 minutes.