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Every so often, Spanish cinema throws up a grungy, beautifully compact thriller that is indeed authentically Spanish, rather than an imitation of U.S. models. Examples are Jorge Sanchez-Cabezudo’s The Night of the Sunflowers and Patxi Amezcua’s 25 Carat; more recently, there’s the work of Alberto Rodriguez. To this august but undervalued pantheon can now be added Raul Arevalo’s The Fury of a Patient Man, a broodingly intense revenge thriller that reflects the fine, broodingly intense performance driving it relentlessly forward.
Wisely choosing a familiar milieu for his first film — it’s set largely in a working-class barrio of Madrid, returning to Arevalo’s childhood pueblo for later scenes — Patient Man is a candidate for Spain’s best thriller of the year, its mounting tension sometimes so visceral as to ensure that it will not quickly be forgotten. Offshore pickups beyond Spanish-speaking territories look likely, and would be deserved.
From the first frames, Jose (Antonio de la Torre) is clearly a man with a mission. He walks head down, urgently, as though late for a very important date, and it’s the terrible nature of that date that concerns us here. After showing up at the barrio bar run by Juanjo (Raul Jimenez), Jose, crucially for what comes later, is able to maneuver himself into the affections of Juanjo’s sister Ana (Ruth Diaz), whose husband, the violent Curro (Luis Callejo), is about to be released from jail after serving time for a jewelry store robbery. Through the early scenes, it’s unclear to both the other characters and the viewer who Jose is, and in this regard, the English title perhaps gives away too much.
Everything is explained as Jose impassively studies flickering surveillance images of the robbery, in which a female sales clerk is brutally beaten to death. She was Jose’s lover; now he’s back, eight years later, to track down her killers. Under the guise of getting Ana away from Curro’s domestic abuse — initially, old Curro’s a pretty charmless combination of violence and neediness — Jose takes her out to a remote house he owns. The “patient man” then leaves her there while he sets out to enact his explosive revenge, taking along Curro, who worries about what will become of Ana if he doesn’t comply.
Jose tells Curro he’s responsible for the death of his girlfriend, and Curro beats him up. But when Jose then reveals that he’s actually holding his Ana, everything changes and the two enter a strange, largely wordless relationship. This scene is typical of the script’s combination of tension, violence and psychological acuity, where the action slows and the camera hones in, Western-like, on Jose’s chillingly focused eyes. The scene in which eight years of simmering hurt finally boil over is incendiary cinema, underpinned by thudding, rising percussion work, part of a score that’s otherwise discreet and downplayed.
This is a film about different forms of anger. Indeed practically all the male characters seem angry about something, turning the film from the gripping suspense thriller it is into a study of Spanish machismo in its most dangerous form. Indeed, one key scene is set in a boxing gym, a place of sweat and suffering that comes across as a metaphor for the world Arevalo is portraying.
Patient Man is so full of such hard-worked scenes of sweaty intensity, and indeed of real physical and emotional pain, that is feels churlish to pick up on its flaws. Its bleakness, for example, sometimes spills over into the borderline sadistic, particularly in the repeated focus on children, in setups that ensure Jose will do the maximum possible damage. The handling of the time frame across the final half-hour is also questionable, as the action cuts between Madrid, the pueblo and the road.
The dialogue is mostly banal: it’s what is simmering beneath that counts. In roles written specifically for them, de la Torre and Callejo do superb work embodying all the anger: the unfailingly good de la Torre delivers a similar turn to his role in Manuel Martin Cuenca’s much-lauded Cannibal — an impassive, almost dapper exterior, complete with trimmed beard (importantly, he’s from a different world to the other characters), concealing a calculating mind that’s always one step ahead of his targets and of the audience. Only once does Jose reveal any emotion, and when he does, his face is cleverly not visible. Then again, it’s crucial that the viewer believes Jose is not a bad man, but rather a man who’s decided to be bad, and de la Torre handles that particular nuance with great skill.
Callejo, an underrated and under-employed actor in Spain, is the other half of this twisted double-act. Curro isn’t smart; all he can offer is physical violence, but the fact that he stays with Jose through their apocalyptic hours together reveals a vulnerability that deepens him. Other performances are up to the mark, with Manolo Solo in particular doing a memorably high-voiced turn as the drug-fueled criminal Santi. Watching Solo, Callejo and de la Torre bounce off one another in their single scene together is a pleasure, albeit a toe-curling one.
Through the first part, the film is set in a vibrant working-class barrio in the outskirts of Madrid, dominated by fiestas, bars and First Communions but also by shadowy, claustrophobic apartments where people dream bad dreams. All of this Arevalo knows well, rendering it with an eye to accuracy. Shooting in 16mm, cinematographer Arnau Valls Colomer uses busy, urgent hand-held camera to provide both that documentary feel and, helped by skillful, quick-fire editing, the air of borderline hysteria that underlies many of the characters’ exchanges.
Once Jose’s revenge machinery has ground into motion, the twists and turns of the plot already planned out in advance by him over eight years, we move into the prairie-like expanses, wide skies and run-down pueblos of Segovia in Central Spain, for a finale that suggests Arevalo has been studying his John Ford. But even such straining for iconic images cannot detract from the main virtue of Patient Man’s terrible tale: that it’s deeply rooted in real people and real places.
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Horizons); also in Toronto festival
Production company: La Canica Films
Cast: Antonio de la Torre, Luis Callejo, Ruth Diaz, Raul Jimenez
Director: Raul Arevalo
Screenwriters: Raul Arevalo, David Pulido
Producer: Beatriz Bodegas
Director of photography: Arnau Valls Colomer
Production designer: Anton Laguna
Costume designers: Cristina Rodriguez, Alberto Valcarcel
Music: Lucio Godoy
Editor: Angel Hernandez Zoido
Sales: Film Factory Entertainment
No rating, 92 minutes
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