Miente -- Film Review

A beguiling visual design enlivens a hoary melodrama about levels of reality

You might guess from his debut film, "Miente (Lie)," that Rafi Mercado is a production designer and video artist. Nearly every frame is a knockout, dedicated to expressing the inner life of an artist teetering on the brink of sanity. The young Puerto Rican director has bitten off a huge chunk of artistic ambition — some may call it pretension — and managed to chew it down into a reasonably coherent psychological thriller, but it’s the audience that may have trouble swallowing.

The film certainly has wowed film festival juries in the last year, although its vigorous experimental nature probably won’t connect with Academy elders who preside over the foreign-language film selections for Oscar nominations. Critics might well split the difference in admiring the well-thought-out visual design but ultimately throwing their hands up at a banal payoff.

The story takes place in an intriguing, graffiti-laced, urban Latin landscape of art, design and distorted reality. A shy video store clerk (Oscar Guerrero) — yes, the film really does trot out that cliché — displays astonishing talent in drawings and painting but seemingly has no ambitions beyond mere creation. Then he meets a troubled though highly sensual woman (Mariana Santangelo) — she of multiple, exotic tattoos — and a street criminal (Frank Perozo), who urges if not bullies him toward the wild side.

Violence lurks beneath every surface. Sexual ambivalence runs through all three roles. Nightmares, flashbacks to childhood abuse and visual games about what is and is not real will keep you guessing what’s going on until about … oh well, just beyond the half-way point in Jose Ignacio Valenzuela’s script (based on the novel by Javier Avila) when it’s all too obvious.

The acting in the three main roles is quite compelling and Mercado’s dramatic imagery certainly coerces your attention for every minute of the short 85-minute running time.

Miente makes a strong debut feature for the young director and makes an equally strong case that more attention should be paid to the film industry blossoming in an American territory that tends to get overlooked.

Opened: March 3,2009 in Puerto Rico
Cast: Oscar Guerrero, Mariana Santangelo, Frank Perozo, Maine Anders, Yamil Collazo
Director: Rafi Mercado
Screenwriter: Jose Ignacio Valenzuela
Based on the novel by Javier Avila
Producers: Ileana Ciena, Sonia Fritz, Frances Lausell
Executive producer: Eric Mathis
Director of photography: Sonnel Valezquez
Production designer: Rafi Mercado, Mailara Santana Pomales
Music: Geronimo Mercado
Costume designer: Angie Olmedo
Editor: Raul Merchand Sanchez
Unrated, 85 minutes