September 2, 2014
A dark secret in a God-forsaken town
For the Herald
La segunda muerte is a nicely paced thriller with an odd sense of the absurdImagine a God-forsaken small town somewhere in Argentina, with few inhabitants, some of them off-beat, some simply run-of-the-mill, but all of them concealing a dire secret. There’s also a lonesome police woman in her mid-thirties, who has just arrived from the city with a secret of her own haunting her day and night. Another outsider comes into town, a kid who can see someone’s past by touching their photos, something which is often more of a burden than a gift. And there’s a string of bizarre deaths involving an entire family, whose members are found completely charred — and praying on their knees.
The strange thing is that they burned from inside out, as it happens with spontaneous combustion — not a very scientific explanation, but still the only one accounting for the shocking phenomenon. The cherry on top: there’s an apparition of no less than Virgin Mary each time someone is set on fire. Or, at least, it seems it’s her. Given the scenario, nothing can be taken for granted.
So expect to find a really original cinematic universe in Argentine Santiago Fernández Calvete’s La segunda muerte (The Second Death), now commercially released and previously featured at many noteworthy film festivals, including the BAFICI, Buenos Aires Rojo Sangre and Sitges, where it met with a very good response from viewers.
As its director acknowledges, La segunda muerte crossbreeds many genres, mainly the thriller with the fantastique, and yet it’s not totally faithful to any of them. It doesn’t strictly adhere to a formula; to a certain extent, it’s generic and it’s great that it is, for this provides an ample mould to work with. Gradually, it becomes the work of a personal filmmaker who eschews predictable outcomes and goes for something else.
For starters, from the thriller there’s the character of the protagonist, Alba Aiello (Agustina Lecouna) the police woman with a dark past investigating a strange case. For such a puzzling case, Alba needs the help of El mago (Tomás Carullo Lizzio), the clairvoyant kid, who also has an ominous past regarding the loss of his mother — and here enters the fantastique with a welcomed touch of drama.
The apparition of the Virgin Mary — or whatever it is — allows for unexpected twists and turns that add new stuff to the genre as they skillfully deceive viewers. From horror cinema, there’s a pervasive, contagious atmosphere of gloom and uneasiness, a feeling of dread underlined by very effective tension. Much of the success of the film is not only about the a smart, wicked screenplay, but largely with a well executed set of aesthetics that convey in images and sounds what this creepy story is all about.
The cinematography is rendered in both drained colours (almost black and white at times) and vivid tones, in order to respectively narrate what’s taking place now and what happened before. Each frame is nearly perfectly composed, with a great sense of space and depth to include both the major and minor facets of a world that looks somewhat normal, but only at first sight. If you look deep enough, you’ll see the many cracks.
The sound is also a notorious element to build the atmosphere required by each sequence. As is the case with David Lynch’s cinema, sound is used here for narrative purposes mainly. It’s as if the inner turmoil each character endures were expressed in surrounding sounds and noises spread out left and right. Incidentally, La segunda muerte also shares with the cinema of David Lynch an odd sense of humour and absurdity. It’s superficial, but it’s there and it works out fine.
On the minus side, the special and visual effects are not that good, and hence somewhat hinder the verisimilitude. A stronger backstory referring to what had happened in the past would have given the premise a more profound edge; and a couple of characters, like the priest and the policeman, could have used more development too. Perhaps the ending is a bit abrupt too.
However, the above are just minor flaws in a film that ventures into genres not often tackled by local filmmakers, and instead of just going for the basics, it dares take new steps. I’d say that La segunda muerte shows the eye of a novel filmmaker who’s never pretentious or hollow. When most directors would have loved to “be innovative” and so would have been unnecessarily flashy and avantgard-ish for the sake of it, Fernández Valente opts to tell a good story in an accomplished, classical fashion while leaving his personal imprint at the same time. As simple — and as difficult — as that.
La segunda muerte, Argentina, 2012. Directed and written by Santiago Fernández Calvete. Produced by Juan Pablo Gugliotta and Nathalia Videla Peña. Cinematography by Darío Sabina. Editing by Mariana Quiroga. Running time: 96 minutes.