The Damned -- Film Review

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San Sebastian Film Festival -- Competition

SAN SEBASTIAN, Spain -- Snakes and skeletons are found under stones in "The Damned," a fragmented drama about aging Argentine revolutionaries coming to terms with a past that has lain buried for 30 years.

This third feature by young Spanish auteur Isaki Lacuesta ("Craven vs. Craven," "The Legend of Time") has its intriguing side but presents several problems for international viewers. Not only does it assume they have a fairly good idea of local history, but it is coyly narrated in bits and pieces, keeping the audience guessing what it's all about.

South Americans might be interested in the story but will be puzzled about why the action unfolds in a tropical forest that bears no resemblance to Argentina. (Actual shooting took place in the mountains of Peru.) This geographic confusion is typical of the film's willful narrative obscurity, which is not going to win it any easy playdates.

Martin (Daniel Fanego) is a revered revolutionary, now living in quiet retirement in Paris. His rugged face and haunted eyes betray a dramatic life. He flies off to a remote forest, where a team of young "forensic archaeologists," led by his old comrade Raul (Arturo Goetz), are on a dig. What they are looking for are the remains of their friend Ezequiel, supposedly a martyr who was killed by the military dictatorship in the late 1970s to early 1980s and secretly buried somewhere in the mountains.

Overly naturalistic dialogue makes it hard to get the story straight and identify the many characters involved. Vicky is the mother of a trigger-happy young digger, Pablo. She is close to Ezequiel's widow Andrea, who was once Martin's friend but is furious that he opted out of the struggle by moving abroad.

It gradually emerges that Vicky was herself a prisoner of the military regime, while Martin, Raul and Ezequiel were members of a revolutionary guerilla group fighting the government.

The atmosphere is sinisterly mysterious, tensions in the re-united group run high, secrets are on the verge of being revealed -- and all this counterpoints banal chit-chat about lost luggage and "the way we were." The great divide between generations is emphasized here: In contrast to the gray-haired oldsters who harbor all kinds of dark secrets and guilt is a younger generation represented by Pablo, who is itching to continue the revolutionary romance, and Silvia (Barbara Lennie), the daughter of Ezequiel and Andrea, who tells Martin in a long, intense monologue that her only desire is to put the past behind her.

In a bow to Jorge Luis Borges' ever-popular short story "Theme of the Traitor and the Hero," the final scenes reveal the secret of "what really happened" to Ezequiel.

Production company: Benece Produccions
Cast: Daniel Fanego, Arturo Goetz, Leonor Manso, Maria Florentino, Juana Hidalgo, Barbara Lennie, Nazareno Casero
Director: Isaki Lacuesta
Screenwriters: Isaki Lacuesta, Isabel Campo
Producer: Xavier Atance
Executive producer: David Matamoros
Director of photography: Diego Dussuel
Music: Gerard Gil
Costume designer: Ariadna Papio
Editor: Domi Parra
No rating, 96 minutes