'Berserker': Film Review | San Sebastian 2016

BERSERKER - Still 1 - H 2016
Courtesy of San Sebastian International Film Festival
Micro budget, macro thrills.

Pablo Hernando’s cultish, skewed noir feature debut has been gathering critical plaudits and a cult following at home.

Anyone looking out for a young Spanish director to watch should take a look at Pablo Hernando’s Berserker, a deliciously ironic, minimalist noir that's the best out-of-nowhere Spanish debut since Carlos Vermut’s Diamond Flash in 2011. Realizing that a good script can help compensate for a peanuts budget, Hernando has fashioned an intriguing, smoothly engineered plotline that runs along in appealingly wry, offbeat fashion until the last 20 minutes when, in a high-risk ploy, everything we think we knew goes up in smoke.

Such narrative daring from a newcomer might look like arrogance, but there’s every evidence that if Hernando wished to fashion a straight thriller, he could. But in terms of Spanish cinema, at least, Berserker represents a special calling card.

Novelist Hugo (Julian Genisson) is looking for ideas for his new novel when he hears how Elena (Elena Serrano), the girlfriend of his flatmate’s brother, is in a mental hospital after apparently having executed and beheaded her boyfriend. She also has taped his severed head to the steering wheel of their car (a striking image, inspired by Leadbelly's "Where Did You Sleep Last Night," which closes the pre-title sequence). Elena’s drugs problems mean the police put it down to a psychotic attack.

But for Hugo, it doesn’t add up. He decides to investigate simply by asking questions, starting with his flatmate Mireia (Ingrid Garcia-Jonsson, the most experienced castmember, best known for Jaime Rosales’ Beautiful Youth), the girlfriend of Elena’s brother. As his investigations continue, and the tantalizing clues (a sheaf of wheat in an envelope, scribbled map coordinates) pile up, in a seemingly unrelated scene a man commits suicide on a shooting range. Hugo has little more to go on than snips of gossip and an old photo, letting his writerly intuition do the rest; he works out that everyone involved has, within a couple of days of each other, gone berserk.

“You’re not a detective, you’re a writer,” Mireia reminds Hugo. But of course, in a way a writer is a detective, seeking out truths, unveiling motives and scratching surfaces, with the major difference that it’s one thing to do it in your imagination, quite another to do it in the real world. At one point, having followed a grid reference to its point in the real world, Hugo gets shot at, apparently from an abandoned building, and that’s the point at which, unlike a movie detective, Hugo calls it quits, going on to write the rest of his novel by following his own imagination rather than the facts.

“The facts,” in this case, are very strange and ambiguous. Daringly, Hernando has gone on record as saying that he knows how the murder story ends, but that he isn’t telling. This is a high-risk strategy that directors can only pull off if they have something better up their sleeve, and although following Hugo’s shooting the narrative might resolve disappointingly for the viewer who has been pulled into Berserker’s expertly woven narrative web, it nonetheless shifts laterally into a interesting, Lynchian area with shades of sci-fi and some troubling, memorable imagery.

Genisson is likeably downbeat and credibly shambolic as the unlikely detective, blinking and impassive from behind massive glasses, regularly provoking the irritation of his flatmate since, for example, he has no idea what she does for a living and eats practically nothing but potatoes (this is, after all, austerity Spain). Garcia Jonsson matches him for naturalness, and indeed one of the film’s pleasures is in listening to the downbeat, one-to-one dialogue on the subject of a murder which more traditional treatments would have wrung dramatically dry in every scene.

One stand-alone sequence — featuring a couple, Ana (Lorena Iglesias) and Henrique (Daniel Mendez), driving into Madrid as she delivers a weirdly abstract monologue and a fixed camera records the unfolding road ahead of them — feels strangely dreamlike and detached from the main story, but in fact it could be its centerpiece, so different is it from anything surrounding it. Apart from this dreamy, wordy scene, the ambience in Berserker is coolly restrained throughout, with characters often shot against bare pale walls, in rooms largely devoid of furniture, showing that a lack of budget — on the part of both the director and the characters — need not necessarily translate into a lack of atmospherics.

Venue: San Sebastian Film Festival (Made in Spain)
Production company: Triceratops Films
Cast: Julian Genisson, Ingrid Garcia Jonsson, Vicenc Miralles, Elena Serrano, Miguel Esteban, Chema Adeva, Lorena Iglesias, Rocio Leon
Producer-director-screenwriter-director of photography-editor: Pablo Hernando
Composer: Aaron Rux
Sales: Triceratops Films

Not rated, 101 minutes