‘Smoke and Mirrors’ (‘El Hombre de las Mil Caras’): Film Review | San Sebastian 2016

Smoke and Mirrors - Still - H - 2016
San Sebastian Film Festival
Slick but soulless.

Alberto Rodriguez’s ambitious follow-up to 'Marshland' tackles the strange, true story of a high-level political fixer in 90s Spain.

In the words of Baudelaire and Verbal Kint, the cleverest trick the devil ever pulled off was to convince the world that he doesn’t exist. Francisco Paesa, the shadowy, swindling real-life anti-hero of Alberto Rodriguez’s flash, turbo-charged politico-financial thriller Smoke and Mirrors, would love to have pulled off the same trick, and his dream almost comes true in a film in which Paesa and the extensive, corrupt crew surrounding him are revealed blurrily at best.

Playing out like a Hispanic Ocean’s Eleven, Smoke is indeed an enjoyably breathless and spectacular walk along a high wire which seems permanently about to snap but which never quite does. Like its characters, it is quick-thinking, showy, ambitious and stylish in its manipulations; but also, for most of the duration, it’s as soulless as a briefcase full of used banknotes. Sales for this quintessentially Hispanic, picaresque tale will be strongest in Spanish-speaking territories, with Rodriguez’s post-Marshland reputation perhaps garnering interest elsewhere - but this is unlikely to replicate the deserved offshore success of the earlier film.

Smoke is based on a book by journalist Manuel Cerdán, the first person to interview Paesa after he faked his own death in 1998. Essentially, Paesa was a high-level fixer who during the 1980s did the Spanish government’s dirty work by purchasing weapons for its fight against the terrorist group ETA, but never got paid for it, and most of Smoke and Mirrors is the story of his elaborate attempt at revenge: the affair was significant at the time, and ministerial heads did indeed roll.

Forced to flee Spain in fear of his life, Paesa returned in 1994, essentially a ruined man locked into an unhappy marriage with his wife Gloria (Mireia Portas). Salvation comes along in the form of another figure from 90s Spain, the spectacularly corrupt Luis Roldan (Carlos Santos) -- the head of one of Spain’s national police forces, who absconded with millions’ worth of public funds. Roldan turns to the financial wiz-kid Paesa to help him launder the money. Roldan will end up on the run in a shabby Paris apartment, a pawn in a game between Paesa and the Spanish government, while back home the media have fun ridiculing him and trying to figure out where on earth he is.

Director Rodriguez admits that the full truth about this tawdry tale will never come out (an issue obliquely dealt with the intro voiceover, when we learn that "like all true stories, this one contains a few lies”. But though it might have been wiser to focus on and amplify one particular strand of the story, the script tries to run with the whole truth - described as Paesa's pal Camoes as ‘a mess of loans, sales and acquisitions’ - and though this is indeed globe-hopping, twisting, turning and sometimes eye-popping, it feels as though there’s just too much truth to squeeze in. The effect is of being manhandled from one scenario and location to another without much thought to such issues as emotional flow or, more seriously, characterization.

That said, in amongst all the look-at-me narrative razzmatazz there are some well-played and conceived standalone scenes which drip with the nastiness of power: one earlier face-off in between Paesa and three potential business partners is one example, ending up with them walking out on our perpetually nonplussed hero.

A quietly-spoken shabby little man, Paesa is a poisonous figure of apparently limitless greed and an amoral blindness to the human consequences of his actions. Fernandez renders all this superbly, and watching him coolly attempt to shrug off his latest scrape is always interesting, but a quiet late-night phone call and the admission to his wife that he’s tired aren’t enough to take us behind his thousand faces (per original title) to what makes him tick. (‘Making lots of money’ is not an interesting enough answer.)

As a character, the secondary Roldan is more compelling, in a performance which might be described as 50 shades of desperation -- “I’m a bad man”, he repeatedly intones at one stage -- and indeed the only scenes which approach anything like human tenderness are those between Roldan and his wife Nieves (Marta Etura).

The viewer’s way into the web is Paesa’s pilot buddy Jesus Camoes (Jose Coronado), who kicks in at the start with a voiceover which regularly returns throughout this sometimes dauntingly complex tale to help us with things we might have missed. In other words, the voiceover is an open confession of narrative confusion. Sometimes, the effect is banal: for example, after one fetching scene in which Paesa inveigles himself into the affections of Roldan and Nieves by buying him some anniversary earrings to give to her, Jesus helpfully confirms that Paesa “knew more about people than they knew about themselves”.

One of the great virtues of Rodriguez's Unit Seven (also based on real events) and Marshland was the strong sense of character and place, fundamental to grounding them. (Smoke reunites most of the crew from the earlier films.) Inevitably, this globe-trotter of a movie -- including visits to Madrid, Paris, Geneva and a fairly long etctera  -- never feels grounded in the same way. The deeper motivations of such potentially fascinating men deserve closer scrutiny than they are afforded here, and there’s the sense that the scriptwriters don’t actually like their creations enough to be really interested in them.

Importantly never seen having actually fun with their money, and despite being the focus of international financial scandals and manhunts, Paesa and Roldan are seen to don their pajamas at the end of each day. This and other such details may humanize the multiple characters of Smoke and Mirrors, but they never deepen them.

Production companies: Zeta Audiovisual, Atresmedia Cine, Atipica Films, Sacromonte Films, Telefonica Studios, El Espia de las Mil Caras

Cast: Eduard Fernandez, Carlos Santos, Jose Coronado, Marta Etura

Director: Alberto Rodriguez

Screenwriters: Rafael Cobos Lopez, Alberto Rodriguez

Producers: Antonio Asensio, Francisxco Ramos, Mikel Lejarza, Mercedes Gamero, Gervasio Iglesias

Executive producer: Jose Antonio Felez

Director of photography: Alex Catalan

Art Director: Pepe Dominguez del Olmo

Costume designer: Fernando Garcia

Editor: Jose M. G. Moyano

Composer: Julio de la Rosa

Casting directors: Eva Leira, Yolanda Serrano

Sales: Film Factory Entertainment

No rating, 122 minutes