Childish Games: Berlin Film Review

Premise is strong, but by-the-books development hamstrings this Spanish psychological thriller about a man haunted by a childhood prank

Antonio Chavarrías’ Spanish psychological thriller feels decidedly out of place in Berlin competition


The idea of a deadly childish prank that comes back to haunt the hero as an adult has possibilities, but the Spanish Childish Games unfolds as a disappointingly routine psychological thriller that tips its hat to Hitchcock without concocting a single truly suspenseful scene. A little bit it’s the predictable roles and acting, a little bit the tame way the central idea is developed, but the film packs limited thrills, pointing to a fast video release after local theatrical. It looked decidedly out of place in Berlin competition.

Writer-director Antonio Chavarrías, who also produced for his company Oberon Cinematografica, bases the tale on a story by in-vogue Catalan playwright Sergi Belbel. Elementary schoolteachers Daniel (Juan Diego Botto) and Laura (Barbara Lennie) are beautiful, young and childless. When the opportunity arises to assume temporary custody of little Julia (Magica Perez), Laura jumps at the chance. Daniel goes along hesitantly, because he knows the girl’s dead father Mario (Marc Rodriguez) from when they were children.

Daniel is tormented by a tragedy that took place when he and Mario were growing up: the “accidental” death of Mario’s little sister after the two boys buried her alive in a grave. The flashbacks to this key scene are doled out with parsimony, adding grim details each time it comes into Daniel’s mind. Now the presence of Mario’s daughter in the house –she’s the same age as little Clara-- brings it all rushing back, and he begins to think Julia is a reincarnation of the dead girl, come back to exact revenge.

First, she wears a red ribbon in her hair just like poor little Clara did, and second, she knows the same nursery rhyme.  And she whispers to him that she know he’s a monster. Even the most clueless viewer will figure out the missing link between Clara and Julia, and why it doesn’t occur to Daniel is a serious scripting problem. 

Personable actors are unable to put flesh on one-note roles: Lennie’s smiling Laura is driven exclusively by her maternal urge, while Botto’s Daniel is absurdly secretive about his problem with Julia until he runs off the rails. Though the film is mercifully low-key on the subject of sexual child abuse, it does leave a bad taste in the mouth to see small children put through psychological torture. Had this been The Spirit of the Beehive, The Turn of the Screw or a similarly psychologically complex film, it would be easier to accept.

On the plus side, the film has a smooth narrative construction and moody, melancholy camerawork from D.P. Guillermo Granillo that creates an increasingly dream-like atmosphere. 


Venue: Berlin Film Festival (competition), Feb. 11, 2012.
Production company: Oberon Cinematográfica
Cast: Juan Diego Botto, Bárbara Lennie, Mágica Pérez, Marc Rodriguez, Agata Roca, Nora Navas
Director: Antonio Chavarrías
Screenwriter: Antonio Chavarrías
Producers: Àngels Masclans, Mónica Lozano, Antonio Chavarrias
Director of photography: Guillermo Granillo
Production designer: Isaac Pierre Racine
Costumes: Jorge Pérez
Editor: Martí Roca
Music: Joan Valent, Zacarías M. de la Riva
Sales Agent: Filmax International
No rating, 95 minutes.