San Sebastian International Film Festival

SAN SEBASTIAN, Spain -- With "Take My Eyes," Spanish director Iciar Bollain took a powerful look the disturbing subject of domestic violence. Though it was a strong film, it perhaps lacked a certain dynamism. Now with "Mataharis," she goes one better, using the little-explored world of female private detectives to look at themes of spying and betrayal and the dilemma of scruples versus ambition. And all this is done with a sharp eye for a good story.

The film should shine outside Spanish-speaking territories in the art houses in English-speaking market. The film opens in Spain on Sept. 24.

"Mataharis" tells the story of three women who work in the same Madrid private detective agency. Ambitious Ines (Maria Vasquez) gets a top job spying on union agitators, but falls for the handsome Diego Martin. She eventually quits rather than selling out on her principles. Eva (Najwa Nimri) uses her professional skills to discover her husband has a secret son, which threatens to split the family but finally brings them closer. Carmen (Nuria Gonzalez) is trapped in a dead marriage, but meets a client whose own marital problems prompt her finally to leave her frosty husband.

Storylines feel fresh as they enter the world of private detectives who are invariably seen as macho male figures. Bollain and her co-writer Tatiana Rodriguez skillfully intertwine the professional and personal lives of the three main protagonists so as to bring the audience closer to the characters.

Vasquez portrays a divided personality -- a snoop who she is above spying on people for a living and has some principles. Nimri is the tricked wife, who easily shows another side when she opts to forgive her husband for not telling her about the hidden son. Gonzalez talks to the plants as her husband refuses to engage in conversation but her tender words with a client about lost love hit home.

The undercover photography is also a clever touch. Inside a bar, Ines pins a tiny camera to her jacket to grab a few shots of her target and, suddenly, we there at the smoky bar with her. Bollain worked using a hand-held camera and it gives the film a documentary feel. She said: "One thing I like to do is to 'steal' the shot: Get out on the street and shoot people who don't know you are there." This works.

"Mataharis" deals with themes of distrust, false appearances, career vs. principles, not to mention surveillance as cameras surround us more and more. Bollain does this subtly, mixing three intertwining stories that are ultimately far more powerful and interesting for the way they deal with personal themes. So here is a private eye movie that makes us ponder the morality of that eye.

A La Iguana/Sogepaq Prod.
Director Iciar Bollain
Writers: Iciar Bollain, Tatiana Rodriguez
Producers: Santiago Garcia de Leaniz, Simon de Santiago
Executive producer: Santiago Garcia de Leaniz
Director of photography: Kiko de la Rica
Music: Lucio Godoy
Art director: Josune Lasa
Costume: Estibaliz Markiegui
Editor: Angel Hernadez Zoido
Eva: Najwa Nimri
Inaki: Tristan Ulloa
Ines: Maria Vazquez
Manuel Diego Martin
Carmen: Nuria Gonzalez
Sergio: Antonio de la Torre
Running time -- 95 minutes
No MPAA rating