‘May God Save Us’ (‘Que Dios Nos Perdone’): Film Review | San Sebastian 2016

San Sebastian Film Festival
Sweaty and suspenseful.

Rodrigo Sorogoyen’s very different follow-up to 'Stockholm' has an oddball detective team hunting down an oddball killer in summertime Madrid.

Two troubled cops hunt for a serial killer in May God Save Us but the film is more interesting than that bald summary makes it sound. For much of its length, Rodrigo Sorogoyen’s second feature, following his cool, bleak minimalist romance Stockholm, mixes up police procedural, social crit, character study, black humor and Catholicism into a taut and distinctive whole which, with its focus on the investigation rather than the killings, suggest that the director is making an early bid for Fincherdom via True Detective.

When it comes time to solve the riddle, it winds down into a standard -- if artfully tense -- cat and mouser, meaning that the final impression is of promise not quite fulfilled. That said, there’s easily enough wit, suspense and dirty truth in God to ensure that its prayers are answered in the offshore arthouse.

The film is set in, and captures beautifully, Madrid’s hot summer of 2011, when the Pope was about to visit and when the 15-M anti-austerity protest movement was being born in the city’s centre, pulling the city in two opposing ideological directions and creating one almighty security headache. The two detectives we meet here, Alfaro (Roberto Alamo, from Pedro Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In) and Velarde (Antonio de la Torre, most recently seen in Raul Arevalo’s The Fury of a Patient Man) represent a clash of styles. To put it simply, Alfaro understands the violence of a killer, and Valverde understands his mind -- and in each case they understand it a little too well for comfort.

First one elderly lady and then another is found raped and murdered -- and be warned, viewers will find at least one of the film’s crime-scene tableaux, in this sometimes brutally violent piece, hard to delete from their memories. Alfaro sees these killings as isolated incidents, but the thorough-minded Velarde -- whose insistent, muttered “has she been raped?” suggests that all is not well in his mind -- detects a pattern.

The investigation proceeds as these things do, with trips to the morgue, forensic evidence and psychological profiling (initially comically ridiculed by Alfaro). But the script is also investigating the two detectives, who bear some of the characteristics of the person they’re seeking, and the tensions of their relationship. Alfaro is thuggish, with anger management issues which suggest that the Madrid police should review its selection criteria, and which are affecting his relationship with his wife and daughter, while Velarde has a stutter and a lack of confidence which at one point leads him to attack and accidentally hurt the cleaning woman he fancies.

For its lengthy final stretch the perspective changes, and we enter the world of the killer: the camera work, until now largely busy hand-held, settles down too. (Alex de Pablo’s photography is pleasingly efficient throughout, never merely showy.) Though the tension is thankfully maintained -- largely through terrific editing from Alberto del Campo and Fernando Franco (a 2013 San Sebastian winner as the director of The Wound) -- the film now becomes pure thriller, having until now been more than that. Its somewhat stylized portrayal of a Hispanic (i.e. fervently Catholic), bug-eyed Norman Bates figure feels deja vu and generic compared to the solidly-rooted, often subtle film we’ve been watching. And the Catholic church has come under attack for its perversions of human nature since further back than Buñuel, so nothing new there either.

The two leads are terrific in their different ways, though De la Torre’s must now feel, post Fury, as though he’s reprising earlier roles as the quiet man with serious inner maladjustments. At one point, Velarde complains about how people find his stutter unbearable, and at times the viewer does too -- and though at performance level the actor carries it off well, a stutter is neither a subtle or original way of signaling social awkwardness.

Alfaro is a particular kind of awful Spanish male -- large and physically threatening but needy at the same time, desperate to be loved but defensive. It is to Alamo’s credit that this complete lug comes over as vulnerable too, earning redemption in the process. Performances further down the pecking order are likewise excellent, with Luis Zahera Alonso, as a third detective, and Garcia Sanchez as their sublimely nasty boss Sancho, doing a nice line in hard-boiled dialogue, standing out.

In its first half at least, God is very clever in its portrayal of the social tensions and cultural tensions of Spain, and which complicate the detectives’ hunt for the truth. At one point, a woman refuses entry to them because a friend of hers has been the victim of police violence, while Sancho, another of the film’s psycho-cops, seems more worried about the PR side of their job than the justice-seeking side.

All of this feels as real and well-observed as the little authentically Spanish scenarios the script pinpoints: to take just one example, the country’s lethal, slippery, recently washed floors -- though the Almodovarian moment where spilt gazpacho looks like blood might be pushing it a little too far. One lengthy set-piece, shot right in the city centre, which begins in an old woman’s apartment and ends up in the underground, with Alfaro screaming at what feels like half the population -- will go down as one of the finest suspenseful sequences to have been filmed in the Madrid.

Soundwork is noteworthy throughout, particularly a low-in-the-mix drone which might be the buzz of air conditioning: whatever it is, it’s the true soundtrack of Madrid in the summertime, and it tingles the spine.

Production company: Tornasol Films, Atresmedia Cine, Mistery Producciones, Hernandez y Fernandez
Cast: Antonio de la Torre, Roberto Alamo, Luis Zahera, Raul Prieto, Maria de Nati, MAria Ballesteros, Jose Luis Garcia Perez
MIquel Fernandez, Aura Garrido, Gines Garcia MIllan, Jose Sacristan, Ana Wagener, Jaime Olias
Director: Rodrigo Sorogoyen
Screenwriters: Rodrigo Sorogoyen, Isabel Pena
Producers: Gerardo Herrero, Mikel Lejarza, Mercedes Gamero
Executive producers: Mariela Besuievsky, Javier Lopez Blanco
Director of photography: Alex de Pablo
Production designer: Miguel Angel Rebollo
Editors: Fernando Franco, Alberto del Campo
Composer: Olivier Arson
Casting directors: Juana Martinez, Natalia Rodriguez
Sales: Latido Films

No rating, 126 minutes

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