'Spider' ('Araña'): Film Review | TIFF 2019

Spider Still - Publicity - H 2019
Courtesy of Film Factory
Stronger on plot and politics than on people.

Past and present live in uneasy juxtaposition in Chilean Andrés Wood's political thriller about a gang of right-wing revolutionaries who grow up in radically different ways.

As so often in Latin American cinema, in Andrés Wood's quietly simmering political thriller Spider the past haunts the present with a potent literalness. Following his 2012 Sundance award-winning character study Violeta Went to Heaven, this elegantly told tale of the diverging fates of a gang of right-wing radicals in the pre-coup d'état Chile of the early '70s is both as human and as political in its concerns as you'd expect from Wood. And although its hold over both head and heart is not as strong as it was in his best film, 2004's Machuca, it still exerts a considerable grip. Festival bookings in Spanish-speaking territories seem likeliest, though Spider could also weave its web on political sidebars elsewhere.

"Keep on playing," affluent business woman Inés (Mercedes Moran, from La Ciénaga) tells her grandson pre-credits as she picks him up and sends him back into his soccer game. We then meet Gerardo (Marcelo Alonso) as he witnesses a street robbery before chasing the robber and driving his car into him at high speed, killing him in a disturbed version of a citizen's arrest.

Inés and Gerardo have a history. Forty years earlier the pair (played as their younger selves by Spaniard María Valverde and Pedro Fontaine) are members, along with Inés' boyfriend Justo (Gabriel Urzúa), of the (real-life) ultra right-wing group "Patria y Libertad" that's determined to bring down the democratic government of Salvador Allende. It's fair to say that any relatability the majority of the audience might feel with this frankly unpleasant trio of 20-something fascists is therefore dead in the water.

Inés, Justo, Gerardo and their chums initially spend their evenings beating up groups of Marxists, but through the film the stakes will rise, and political assassination will come into play. Meanwhile Inés starts to fall for the violent-tempered, largely silent Gerardo, preferring him to the even more repugnant Justo, with the pair starting a sexual relationship whose potency is still capable of stirring Inés 40 years later.

Back in the present, Inés has put all this behind her and lives in a high-rise, executive world, married to the still-repugnant Justo, who's now supplemented his list of virtues by becoming an alcoholic. But Gerardo, now shaggy of beard and hair — as someone points out, he looks, in his prison uniform, like a minion — is still fighting for the right-wing cause, though his target now is immigrants rather than Marxists.

Gerardo's arrest following his killing of the robber reawakens police interest in a long-buried murder case, casting a shadow over Inés' comfortable existence: The big question dramatically is whether the two will face off again after 40 years and whether Gerardo will bring to light everything that Inés wants to keep hidden. It adds up to an interrogation of the fact that in Chile, current prosperity has been built on past violence. It's not a new theme in Chilean cinema, but Wood handles it excitingly, despite events in the '70s narrative piling up too frenetically for dramatic comfort over the final stretch.

There is a lot to admire about Spider (the title derives from the "Patria y Libertad" symbol). Its narrative shuttles quickly, smoothly and efficiently back and forth in time without ever feeling disjointed or incoherent, and it feels psychologically true that while all these years later the two men are exaggerated parodies of their former selves, Inés has been smart enough to reinvent herself as someone apparently totally different.

There are therefore really six key characters in Spider. The problem is that only two of them — the older Inés and the older Gerardo — are interesting: There's the sense that Wood has played the dangerous game of making a movie about people he doesn't like or properly understand. (That said, the dynamics between them are neatly done: It's clear that Gerardo, a working-class boy, is being played like a marionette by the middle-class pair for their own ends.) But though they're a lively enough team, the younger trio are basically off-the-shelf '70s bourgeois revolutionaries who don't seem to be sure whether bashing Commies in the head is a game or not.

Despite his frankly weird appearance — you'd have thought that anyone hell-bent on causing terrorist mayhem would have gone for a slightly more discreet look — Alonso infuses the older Gerardo with unsettling intensity, while the film offers Morán, as the older Inés, as hard-nosed as ever, but with a different focus, a wider range of situations through which to show her qualities.

As a thriller, the film moves along at a satisfying rhythm, with Antonio Pinto's pumping score playing a key role. A young, female quasi-detective is even thrown into the mix in the form of Gerardo's psychiatric nurse, Nadia (Maria Gracia Omenga), seeking to uncover the truth about Gerardo. But the script quickly discards Nadia; Wood's real interest is in the psychological damage that the past inflicts on the present and on the future.

In Spider this issue is particularly well-handled in a birthday party scene where the tensions between Inés and her son José (Mario Horton) bubble over: "What would your kids be now if they'd been raised under Marxism?" she shouts at him. Her question reveals that though 40 years have passed and she's a different person socially, not much has really changed inside Inés — which is where change really matters.

Production companies: Bossa Nova Films, Magma Cine, Wood Producciones
Cast: Maria Valverde, Mercedes Morán, Pedro Fontaine, María Gracias Omegna, Marcelo Alonso, Gabriel Urzua, Felipe Armos
Director: Andrés Wood
Screenwriter: Guillermo Calderón
Producers: Alejandra García, Paula Cosenza, Juan Pablo Gugliotta, Nathalia Videla Peña, Denisse Gomez
Executive producers: Patricio Pereira, Judith Cárdenas, Josefina Labán
Director of photography: Miguel Littin
Production designer: Rodrigo Bazaes
Editor: Andrea Chignoli
Composer: Antonio Pinto
Casting director: Roberto Mattus

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Contemporary World Cinema)
Sales: Film Factory

105 minutes