'The Accused' ('Acusada'): Film Review | Venice 2018

Courtesy of Venice Film Festival
But...did she do it?

Argentinean director Gonzalo Tobal's second feature, a courtroom drama that co-stars Lali Esposito and Gael Garcia Bernal, premiered in competition at the Venice Film Festival.

A 21-year-old girl has to face not only a murder trial but also the scrutiny of an entire nation in The Accused (Acusada), from director Gonzalo Tobal (Villegas). This is familiar territory for anyone who has ever seen a courtroom drama, whether set in Argentina or elsewhere. There are conversations and rehearsals with lawyers, prying “journalists” and photographers and family members who can’t bear the tension over the uncertain future and constantly being in the unasked-for spotlight. Since the main source of suspense is the innocence or guilt of the protagonist, the film plays more like a genre item than a psychological study and as such it is nicely assembled and relatively competently told, even if it stumbles towards its conclusion in the final reels. But whether this was deserving of the only competition slot granted a Latin American film in Venice this year is another question, as the final result plays like a big-budget adaptation of an airport novel more than the provocative work of a young auteur. 

The ominously named Dolores (Lali Esposito) still lives with her parents, Betina (Ines Estevez) and Luis (Leonardo Sbaraglia), as well as her kid brother, Martin (Emilio Vodanovich). For the past two years, she’s been at home awaiting trial after having been accused of murdering her best friend, Camila. There’s a motive, as Camila leaked a video of Dolores having sex and in the video she can be heard saying that she would kill Camila if anyone else ever saw the footage. There’s no direct evidence, though indirect evidence could possibly be linked to Dolores, who was the last person who saw Camila alive. And what’s more, the police have no other suspects.

The first half-hour, Tobal and co-writer Ulises Porra Guardiola sketch the scene at home, where Dolores’ frantic parents orchestrate interviews for magazines and TV crews that could sway public opinion in her favor ahead of what promises to be a media feeding frenzy during the trial. While they seem more worried about public opinion than the well-being of her daughter, at least one of Dolores’ friends from the fashion school she attended, Flo (Martina Campos), swings by every now and then and at one point even brings ‘round a local hottie, Lucas (Lautaro Rodriguez), when the accused complains she hasn’t had any in over two years. 

It is clear that everyone, including the expensive family lawyer (Daniel Fanego) who insists on repeatedly rehearsing all possible questions and answers, are willing to help out Dolores in ways they believe will help. One thing, however, doesn’t become clear: Is she innocent or not? Tobal withholds this key piece of information intentionally, teasing the audience with brief pans from the crime scene without giving anything away. 

This choice has far-reaching implications, as it thus becomes impossible to create any kind of emotion connection with the protagonist, since Dolores clearly knows more than the audience does but she is forced to walk around with permanent resting poker face so audiences can be kept guessing. To help compensate for the lack of access to her emotions, Tobal provides an unhealthy amount of musical cues, from Rogelio Sosa’s swirling original score to an eclectic soundtrack that includes everything from pop songs from yesteryear to arias from a Mozart opera. There’s rarely a moment the soundscape is quiet, which is perhaps appropriate for a story about a trial heavily sensationalized by the media but which also reeks of facile audience manipulation that’s meant to camouflage the fact the story is, by design, all surface plot and little to no feeling or character depth.

About 30 minutes in, the action moves into the courthouse and tangential evidence, timelines and theories about the possible murder weapon are presented. This essentially puts the audience in the shoes of a judge or jury, as all the possibilities need to be weighed against one another. Could she have done it? Is it likely that she has? To help create even more doubt in viewers’ minds, Tobal has carefully planted little clues earlier on, like Betina lying to her husband about where she has been with their daughter, to suggest that dishonesty is a part of everyday life. But there's finally too little here that distinguishes the plot from countless TV series set in and around courtrooms. 

(Spoilers in the following three paragraphs.) Bespectacled Mexican heartthrob and terrific actor Gael Garcia Bernal has a fun cameo as a talk show host whose sequence is meant to further suggest that the media do whatever they want with a story, though the subsequent decision of Dolores to go off-script on air isn’t exactly a surprise. And beyond showing that an entire country will have an opinion on a court case they vaguely follow in papers and on TV, The Accused offers surprisingly little in terms of analysis, insight or even irony.

The best and worst scenes come practically back-to-back in the third act. When Luis breaks down in front of Dolores, while a thunderstorm rages outside, it’s an impressive sight. He very harshly tells her that, should she be found guilty after all the effort they have put in as a family, she will no longer be his daughter. This is the illogical behavior of a man at the end of his tether and one of the rare moments in which the emotional toll of such a difficult situation becomes clear.

However, Todal ruins the goodwill towards the difficult plight of the father during an awkwardly staged sequence around a water-well at the family’s rural abode that follows not much later. The entire scene, shot in soft- and shallow-focus like some fairytale-inspired porn quickie from the 1970s, feels like it belongs in a completely different film, with the rest of The Accused having a sleek, contemporary look that combines swooping camera moves with more intimate handheld shots. A possible third theory in the home stretch is also presented very quickly and then not developed, which, together with some other stray elements here and there, suggests some parts of the original plot may have found their way to the virtual trash can on the editor’s desktop to keep the running time under two hours.  

Esposito, a young star locally, certainly has camera presence, but her turn here is to mostly look like a discreetly melancholic if well-dressed puppet. Sbaraglia and Estevez, as her parents, fare a little better, though they, too, are shortchanged by the fact this isn’t so much a “whodunit” as a “didshedoit,” so everything is subjugated to the sense of suspense that needs to be created around Dolores. That said, the very last shot, while not unexpected, still manages to pack a punch.

Production companies: Rei Cine, K&S Films, Telefe, Piano, Warner Bros.
Cast: Lali Esposito, Leonardo Sbaraglia, Ines Estevez, Daniel Fanego, Gerardo Romano, Gael Garcia Bernal
Director: Gonzalo Tobal
Screenplay: Gonzalo Tobal, Ulises Porra Guardiola
Producers: Hugo Sigman, Benjamin Domenech, Santiago Gallelli, Matias Roveda, Matias Mosteirin, Leticia Cristi, Axel Kuschevatzky
Executive producers: Micky Buye, Javier Braier
Director of photography: Fernando Lockett
Production designer: Sebastian Orgambide
Costume designer: Laura Donari
Editor: Alejandro Carrillo Penovi
Music: Rogelio Sosa
Casting: Mariana Mitre, Natalia Smirnoff, Mariia Laura Berch
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Competition)
Sales: Film Factory

In Spanish
113 minutes