‘The Hidden City’ (‘La Ciudad Oculta’): Film Review

Courtesy of El Viaje Films
Through a lens darkly.

Victor Moreno’s documentary, which premiered at Seville’s Festival of European Cinema before going on to play at IDFA, goes underground for a visually impressive exploration of the world beneath our feet.

The first few minutes of The Hidden City are devoted to re-educating our eyes and our minds to prepare us for what we’re about to see. First one, then slowly more and more, pinpricks of light appear on the otherwise dark screen. It’s impossible to know what these pinpricks are. Prepare yourselves, director Victor Moreno is telling us, for a movie that’s about darkness rather than light, about disorienting abstractions rather than the concrete, about a close but unfamiliar world.

The documentary duly delivers on all counts — and it’s compelling. Leisurely but never demanding apart from its sheer, inevitable claustrophobia and occasional striking grotesqueness, visually choreographed to within an inch of its life, Hidden City — a mood piece that’s as much an experience as a movie — has the rare and impressive virtue of slightly rearranging our perspective as we emerge afterwards, blinking. International festivals with a taste for the edgy should see the light.

Moreno’s last film, The Building, was a political metaphor that recorded the dismantling of the Edificio Espana, a symbol of Francoism. At the most basic level, it was a documentary about absence where there should be presence. Hidden City is the opposite, finding unexpected activity where we would generally not expect to find it.

We are taken on two journeys at once. The first, literal journey is to the ground beneath Madrid, to its train tunnels, its sewers, its eerie chambers, its underground rivers and man-made caverns, to the technology whose effects we feel up here in the unhidden city: There is much focus on the underground architecture. But these locations are then daringly and sometimes disturbingly transformed into dreamlike images and sounds that are not so much filmic as immersive, experiential. At times, the aim seems not to be to reveal what is hidden in the darkness, but rather the textures of darkness itself.

High-definition photography by Jose A. Alayón, carried out in adverse conditions, and sometimes intercut with surveillance camera footage, brings a full range of techniques — tracking shots along train tracks, close-ups of dripping walls of pitted brick, vertical shots straining to see the sky. Sometimes there are human figures, subterranean astronaut workers slowly advancing like shadowy characters in the sci-fi movies that Moreno seems continually to be referencing. We focus in on sleepy human faces, traveling on the underground train.

An animal is located in an area where there shouldn’t be one; its eyes shine out at us, lit by infrared. There are rats, cockroaches and a wild cat. Through these scenes we are in the territory not of science fiction, but of horror, a Lynchian nightmare. Later we are treated to full-screen images of microbes under microscopes in sewage water, but these don’t seem quite to fit so well into the film’s patterning, feeling like a step too far in pursuit of the hidden. As we approach the closing scenes, an owl, the all-seeing bird of the night in the pic’s only concession to the invented, flaps towards the camera.

The hidden city is anything but silent. The sound work is extraordinary, a detailed and carefully worked symphony of engineering noises, of droning weirdness that’s redolent of the grinding machinery of Mauro Herce’s Dead Slow Ahead. This is indeed the kind of technically exquisite fare that lends itself easily to the charge of thematic emptiness.

But the end credits list hundreds of underground workers, often working in tough conditions, who have helped in the making of the film. This suggests, though the world it depicts is emphatically depopulated, that this is finally a homage to the inhabitants of the alternative world that Moreno has so potently depicted — that, in the end, the Hidden City is indeed a city more than anything else.

Production companies: El Viaje Films, Rinoceronte Films, Pomme Hurlante Films, Dirk Manthey Films, Kino Pravda
Director: Víctor Moreno
Screenwriters: Rodrigo Rodríguez, Nayra Sanz Fuentes, Victor Moreno
Producers: Jose Alayon, Marina Alberti, Nayra Sanz Fuentes, Eva Chillon, Dirk Manthey, Victor Moreno
Director of photography: Jose A. Aylon
Editors: Samuel M. Delgado, Víctor Moreno

Venue: Seville European Film Festival
Sales: Shellac

80 minutes