Thesis on a Homicide: Film Review
Hernan Goldrid's cat-and-mouse thriller revolves around a law professor investigating a murder on campus.
Theory and practice become hopelessly confused for the law teacher protagonist of Thesis on a Homicide. The film echoes Juan Jose Campanella’s Oscar-winning The Secret in their Eyes in that it’s from the same production house and features Ricardo Darin as a slightly over the hill former lawyer investigating a young woman’s murder, but the resemblances stop there. Thought-provoking but lacking the emotional punch to make it memorable, Argentinian Hernan Goldfrid’s follow-up to his 2009 screwball debut Music on Hold did great business at home and has held solid in Spain following its April release, with the flaws in “Thesis” unlikely to keep Darin’s offshore fanbase from buying into it.
Roberto Bermudez (Darin) is teaching a course attended by, among others, Spaniard Gonzalo Ruiz Cordera (Alberto Ammann, best-known outside Spain for Cell 211). Bermudez’s confidence is rattled by the confident, well-scrubbed young man, whose utterances consist of carefully polished, faux-philosophical abstractions about the differences between justice and the law which are at odds with Bermudez’s own theories.
When a murdered girl is discovered on campus, Bermudez’s initial dislike of Gonzalo becomes suspicion: one of the film’s more interesting notions is that the murder may have been carried out as a practical demonstration of Gonzalo’s ideas. The stage is set for a Rope-style battle of wits between master and acolyte – with the twist that this particular battle of wits may all be taking place inside Bermudez’s increasingly addled head. Viewers seeking a nicely tied-up ending will be left frustrated at the endless ambiguities generated by this approach.
Bermudez embarks on a campaign to prove that Gonzalo is the killer. Unconcerned by old professional friends’ opinions that he’s getting out of his depth, the prof starts to make out-there connections to demonstrate his thesis. For example, he links the fact that Gonzalo has used a butterfly metaphor to the fact that the dead girl was wearing a butterfly neckchain. He also befriends the victim’s heartbroken younger sister, Laura (Calu Rivero), but can only look on helplessly across a generation as Laura and Gonzalo get close.
Thesis is at its most exciting whilst showing Bermudez bringing his intelligence to bear on the apparently trivial. Rarely can a scene at a supermarket checkout desk, with the audience breathlessly waiting for the right figure to tally up, be so tense.
The film is always efficient but rarely so dazzling. Most of its plus points are due to the unshowy but ever-intense Darin, who has come, via a series of memorable performances in films such as Eyes and Nine Queens, to define an era in Argentinean film. Luckily for the script, Darin is engrossing even when he’s just mulling things over from behind his heavy-lidded, heavily-bagged eyes - which he does a lot here. But neither the over-brisk treatment of Bermudez’s psychology – fleeting reference is made to an old investigation, which ended unhappily for him – and the fact that he spends a lot of time at the gym, hitting a punch bag – a wearily derivative way of revealing his pent-up anger – add much. Neither does d.p. Rodrigo Pulpeiro’s tendency to bring in woozy soft focus to show Bermudez’s regular alcoholic hazes.
The smoothness and angularity of Amman’s features and delivery position him nicely between the earnest-but-pleasant and the crimimal aesthete, but the script doesn’t allow him to develop any inner life: chemistry is thus lacking both in the Bermudez/Gonzalo exchanges and, perhaps even more gravely, in those between Bermudez and Laura. It all adds up to an emotional hole in the middle of a film which, as its title suggests, is too much about the head, too little about the heart.
Venue: Cines Princesa, Madrid, May 8
Production companies: Tornasol Films, BD Cine, Castafiore Films, Haddock.
Cast: Ricardo Darin, Alberto Ammann, Calu Rivero, Arturo Puig, Fabian Arenillas, Mara Bestelli
Director: Hernan Goldfrid
Screenwriter: Patricio Vega
Producers: Gerardo Herrero, Diego Dubcovsky
Executive producers: Mariela Besuievsky, Jimena Blanco, Daniel Burman
Director of photography: Rodrigo Pulpeiro
Production designer: Mariela Ripodas
Music: Sergio Moure
Costume designer: Cristina Rodriguez
Editor: Pablo Barbieri