Ismael: Film Review

Ismael Still - H 2013
Courtesy of Zeta Cinema

Ismael Still - H 2013

A well-played but ponderous piece whose study of parenthood, childhood, and the responsibilities they bring fails to deliver emotionally.

A runaway kid opens up a Pandora's box of hidden adult emotion in Marcelo Pineyro's star-studded family drama.

A film director with a reputation based on classy hard-boiled fare like Burnt Money and The Method, Argentinean Marcelo Pineyro suddenly comes over all soft centered for Ismael, and it doesn’t quite work. It’s the kind of film where the real action takes place inside the characters, and a solid, high-profile cast duly delivers, but there’s no escaping the fact that dramatically, despite its attempts to pluck the heartstrings, Ismael lacks the requisite intensity and is all out of tune. Box office following its Christmas release in Spain has been poor, but the lure of its cast should nonetheless guarantee some play in other Spanish-speaking territories.

Chasing down an address on a letter from the father he’s never met, eight-old Ismael (Larsson do Amaral) high-tails it on a bullet train from Madrid to the Costa Brava in northern Spain. He turns up at the house of driven professional restaurant owner Nora (Belen Rueda) and promptly announces that he’s here to meet his father, Nora’s son, Felix (Mario Casas), who works in a center for juvenile offenders.

Nora contacts Ismael’s mother Alika (Ella Kweku), who drives to the Costa in the company of boyfriend Luis (Juan Diego Botto), and then sets off with Ismael to meet her estranged son. Once there, Nora sets off sparks in the heart of local hotel owner, the bluff, plain-speaking Jordi (Sergi Lopez), who’s by some distance the film’s most appealing character – and that includes Ismael himself.

The question is whether the script will be able to do justice to the emotional complexity of the situation it posits, and the answer is that it does not. Members of the cast have played in some of the biggest-hitting titles in Spanish film: Rueda was the emotional heart of Juan Antonio Bayona’s The Orphanage, while Lopez is best known for his chilling performance as the fascist father-in-law of Pan’s Labyrinth.

Their scenes together here are the film’s best, two seasoned pros enjoying being cast as middle-aged loners seeking solace. Another standout is Mikel Iglesias as Chino, one of Felix’s charges, and living proof that given the chance, Felix could be a good father to Ismael.

But unfortunately, they’re not the core action, and where the core action is, things are a lot less assured, with too much inconsequential dialogue, too little forward momentum, and plenty of uncertain pacing. Luis is fearful that Alika will leave him for Felix since Felix still holds a candle for her, but the viewer knows right away that this isn’t going to happen, and Felix can do little but look on, wan-faced, as Alika plumps for the present over the past.  
In Spain, Casas, a hot box office property in Latin territories who has just acquired a U.S. agent, is slowly but surely shaking off his image as the damaged beefcake of 2010’s Three Meters above the Sky to become a real actor, and here, no effort is spared in trying to distance him from his old self. Perhaps disappointingly for Casas’ fan base, Felix is insecure, wears baggy sweaters that conceal his musculature, has a limp, and all that remains of the old Casas is the sometimes inaudible muttering.

First-timer Kweku appears under-directed and lacks nuance, meaning that the scenes between her and Felix which should be the film’s most emotionally charged in fact feel anything but. Sadly, even Ismael himself feels one dimensional -- though he does at least avoid the charge of cutesiness. The kid’s plain speaking does contrast nicely with the emotional confusion of his elders, but his willfulness starts to irritate, and the film inadvertently starts to look like as a warning against the potential dangers of putting our kids before ourselves.

Much of the action takes place in the charming beach cabin where Felix lives, making for some attractive beach and hillside shots. The sprightly violin and guitar melody of Javier Limon’s score feel like a strained attempt to keep a smile on the audience’s face. One sequence, accompanied by Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me to the End of Love”, is really evocative stuff that shows to what extent this project has wasted its potential.

Production: Zeta Cinema, Atresmedia Cine
Cast: Mario Casas, Belen Rueda, Sergi Lopez, Juan Diego Botto, Mikel Iglesias, Ella Kweku, Alain Hernandez, Larsson do Amaral, Oscar Foronda, Gemma Brio  Director: Marcelo Pineyro
Screenwriter: Veronica Fernandez, Marcelo Figueras, Marcelo Pineyro
Producers: Francisco Ramos, Antonio Asensio
Executive producer: Mercedes Gamero
Director of photography: Xavi Gimenez
Production designer: Balter Gallart
Editor: Irene Blecua
Music: Javier Limones
Wardrobe: Loles García
Sales: Sony Pictures Releasing (Spain)
No rating, 111 minutes