Customer Review

54 of 61 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Worth a look, but not Villaronga's best, 18 Jan. 2002
This review is from: El Mar [2000] [DVD] (DVD)
THE SEA
[El Mar]

(Spain - 1999)

Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Theatrical soundtrack: Dolby Stereo SR

Agustin Villaronga's sexual psychodrama is based on an autobiographical work by Blai Bonet (1926-1997), a Catalan poet, novelist and art critic whose career was shaped in part by religion and illness, most especially the battle with tuberculosis which marred his early life. Villaronga's adaptation is set in 1946 and attends the fortunes of three old friends - two men and a woman - whose lives have been deeply affected by a vicious crime they witnessed in childhood. Reunited in a remote TB sanatorium, the wild and reckless Ramallo (Roger Casamajor) discovers that fellow patient Tur (Bruno Bergonzini) has retreated into the Christian faith, whilst Francisca (Antonia Torrens) has become a nun, ministering to the sick and dying. Subsequently, both Tur and Francisca become sexually attracted to Ramallo, generating conflict with their religious beliefs and culminating in a sudden eruption of horrific violence.

In a brief statement written exclusively for the original UK DVD release, Villaronga - who made an unforgettable impact with his debut IN A GLASS CAGE (1986), a masterpiece of psychological horror often cited (correctly) as one of the most disturbing films ever made - describes THE SEA as "one of [his] most secret and treasured projects for more than 20 years", inspired by personal recollections of childhood spent in his homeland Mallorca. However, the eventful narrative is also slow and ponderous, and imbued with a tangible sense of pain and raw emotion. The sanatorium is a desolate place where society's outcasts mark time as their condition either improves or deteriorates, and where terminally-ill patients are wheeled away in the dead of night to suffer their final hideous agonies behind closed doors, surrounded by the trappings of an absent God. The script - co-written by Villaronga, Antoni Aloy and Biel Mesquida - deliberately foregrounds spiritual matters, only to savage them with merciless abandon, describing characters whose lives are constrained and diminished by strict adherence to their religious convictions, while the slow-burning sexual tension that simultaneously divides and binds the central protagonists convey a very real sense of imminent tragedy.

The three leads - macho Casamajor, sensitive Bergonzini and pious Torrens - make their feature debut here, and they all give performances of astonishing depth and complexity, while supporting players include Simon Andreu (a veteran leading man who's worked all over Europe since the 1960's, though mostly in Spain) and Angela Molina, an accomplished Spanish actress, seen recently in LIVE FLESH (1997). The film's stately pace and magisterial gloom is due principally to the combined talents of cinematographer Jaume Peracaula and art director Francesc Candini (both of whom have worked with Villaronga before), while editor Raul Roman builds the narrative to an emotional crescendo, underlined by a driving, elegiac music score by Javier Navarrete, another frequent Villaronga collaborator who performed similar duties on Guillermo del Toro's highly-acclaimed THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE (2001). Ultimately, however, the movie is an acquired taste: Villaronga doesn't shy away from male nudity, gay sex and sudden outbursts of bloody violence, but his solemn, 'art-house' approach to the material precludes any suggestion of exploitation. As such, some will embrace the film's sophisticated Gothic ambitions, while others will reject its cold austerity.

NB. The director is credited on-screen under the slightly abbreviated spelling 'Agusti' Villaronga.
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