After -- Film Review

Benjamin Walker
Jason Kempin/Getty Images

NEW YORK - OCTOBER 13:  Actor Benjamin Walker attends the "Bloody Bloody Jackson" opening night after party at Brasserie 8 1/2 on October 13, 2010 in New York City.

ROME -- A devastating portrait of alienation in today's Spain, Alberto Rodriguez's "After" leaves the viewer with the bitter after-taste of having watched two hours of ugly truth to pumped-up party music with a hangover in the works. Yet despite its dramatic exaggeration, the film has a classic realism in unveiling the loneliness and desperation that lie behind the successful social masks of three 40-year-old friends.

Frank, almost off-handed scenes of sex, alcohol and substance abuse set the bar closer to "The Lost Weekend" than to the director's wild but delicate street kids movie "7 Virgins." Unremitting bleakness and a downbeat ending will make this more of a critic's choice than a popular seller offshore.

The main action takes place during one long night of booze and coke, as childhood friends Ana, Manuel and Julio aimlessly bar-hop and indulge. Mister married nice guy Manuel (Tristan Ulloa) has a wife and little boy he can't connect to. Their fashionista home is located in a wealthy suburb so sinister it isn't surprising the dog runs away. Manuel has a streak of hidden violence that emerges in a key scene with his son, and outbursts of unprovoked aggression characterize his friends' behavior, too.

If Manuel takes his frustrations out on his son, Ana (Blanca Romero) finds other outlets. She picks up a wounded dog lying on a highway and, instead of returning it to her friends, makes it into a plaything. Why this beautiful, vivacious woman is single becomes apparent in the hidden masochism of her casual sexual pick-ups, and her inability to communicate her feelings to her regular lover.

"Only connect" would seem to be the theme here, and it is most obviously the case with Julio (Guillermo Toledo), who travels for work and spends his nights in hotels watching porn or paying hookers. Though the least likable of the trio, thanks to his random acts of sadism, the scene in which he is repulsed by Ana while she seduces two younger men in front of his eyes is wrenching anyway.

Making this sad story of emotionally wasted lives memorable are highly credible performances by the main cast, who construct their characters with a theatrical attention to detail. The versatile Toledo ("Ferpect Crime") and Ulloa ("Lucia and Sex") strongly evoke two different types of messed-up contemporary men, whose very normality is the most disturbing thing about them. In her first major film role, Romero is a real discovery: pretty, sophisticated and absolutely comfortable in her body.

Giving the film a mega-dose of energy is editor Jose Manuel Moyano's skillful breakdown of the narrative into angry fragments, moving forward and backward in time from the trio's big night on the town.

Venue: Rome Film Festival -- Competition

Production companies: Tesela PC, La Zanfona
Cast: Guillermo Toledo, Tristan Ulloa, Blanca Romero, Jesus Carroza, Raul Del Pozo, Marta Solaz, Valeria Alonso, Ricardo De Barreiro
Director: Alberto Rodriguez
Screenwriter: Rafael Cobos, Alberto Rodriguez
Producer: Jose Antonio Felez
Executive producer: Gervasio Iglesias, Jose Antoni Felez
Director of photography: Alex Catalan
Production designer: Pepe Dominguez Del Olmo
Music: Julio De La Rosa
Costume designer: Fernando Garcia
Editor: Jose Manuel Moyano
Sales: Imagina
No rating, 116 minutes