Hidden (A escondidas): Malaga Review

Though burdened with all the cliches of indie cinema and too buttoned-down, 'Hidden' is just about saved by its engaging directness.

Racism and romance are the twin focal points of Mikel Rueda’s teen outsiders drama.

A muted story about the point at which race and gender issues overlap, Mikel Rueda's Hidden reveals little. Wearing its worthiness like a badge, stylistically the film is a compendium of '80s/'90s indie movie tics, featuring hand-held camera, lengthy silences, pop music interludes and slo-mo galore. These don’t always work in the story’s favor, but the central relationship -- between a young Spaniard learning about his sexuality and an “illegal” Moroccan immigrant -- retains just enough spark to maintain interest. Efficient rather than exciting, Hidden will be just too deja vu for many adult audiences; its main appeal seeming to lie with the kinds of teenagers it so sympathetically portrays.

Hidden is set in Bilbao in northern Spain, but far from the tourist glories of the Guggenheim Museum. The opening scene, featuring an uncomfortable racist showdown between 14 year-old Ibrahim (Adil Koukouh) and a couple of gas station workers, clearly sets out the climate of aggression in which the young man lives. For different reasons, the physically unprepossessing Rafa (German Alcarazu), also 14 but looking younger, is feeling persecuted: led by the depressingly unreconstructed Javi (Eder Pastor), his friends are all walking hormones, noisily trying to fix him up with a classmate, but Rafa is not interested. He prefers to start following Ibrahim around to the hostel for immigrants, run by Alicia (Ana Wagener) and overseen by Jose (Alex Angulo, best known to non-Spanish audiences for Pan’s Labyrinth), where Ibrahim lives.

Essentially the rest of the film charts the will/won’t they trajectory of the increasingly love-sick Rafa and Ibrahim, dramatizing as it goes the ways in which institutions and regulations on Ibrahim’s side, and society’s expectations on Rafa’s, deny people the right to be who they are as human beings. The twin tyrannies of the schoolyard and a still-racist society are sharply portrayed and juxtaposed throughout.

One of the meanings of the title is thus that the protagonists’ emotions are concealed, so that when they’re together they prefer to sit in silence rather than engage in any but the most banal chitchat. This may be authentic in that these young guys are unable to verbalize, but it doesn’t make for great viewing.

The indie pop tunes used as the score are unfailingly attractive, but overused -- there’s never too long to wait until the next musical interlude. One of these, showing the pair relaxing and having a good time at the bowling alley, takes Hidden right into pop video/TV ad territory.

The performances from the central tandem are fine, but not always matched for quality elsewhere. Kenneth Oribe’s camera seems to love Ibrahim nearly as much as Rafa does, with lengthy close-ups of his often impassive features not perhaps revealing as much to the viewer about Ibrahim’s state of mind as they are supposed to.

Finally, and despite its poignant ending, Hidden seems to be delivering the uncomplicated message that love can bring down divisions of race and gender -- which is just fine, but some shading and nuancing of the idea would have made for a more involving viewing experience. Some of the film’s subtleties are thus lost in its drive toward directness. There’s the suggestion, for example, that Rafa’s friend Guille (Joseba Ugalde) is in love with Rafa, who ignores him completely in his pursuit of Ibrahim. Meanwhile, the charismatic gang leader of the Moroccans, Youssef (Moussa Echarif), who has a sick baby brother, is potentially a more absorbing character than Ibrahim, but he too remains unexplored.

Production: Baleuko, Bitart

Cast: German Alcarazu, Adil Koukouh, Joseba Ugalde, Moussa Echarif, Mansour Zakhnini, Ana Wagener, Alex Angulo

Director-screenwriter: Mikel Rueda

Producers: Eduardo Barinaga, Karmelo Vivanco, Fernando Diez

Director of photography: Kenneth Oribe

Editors: Mikel Rueda, Alex Argoitia

Production designer: Idoia Esteban

Sound: Xabi Aguirre

Sales: ETB

No rating, 88 minutes