‘The Tip of the Iceberg’ (‘La Punta del Iceberg’): Film Review

Courtesy of Latido Films
A cool, clear-eyed take on a time-worn theme.

Spaniard David Canovas’ debut stars Maribel Verdu in a takedown of corporate culture.

‘Death in the Time of Capitalism’ would be a good alternative title for The Tip of the Iceberg, a thriller/satire on contempo corporate culture that’s mostly as sharp and chilly as the title suggests — in this case mostly to the good. Featuring a performance of jagged elegance from Maribel Verdu (Y Tu Mama Tambien, Pan’s Labyrinth and a long etcetera) as an exec investigating a slew of in-company suicides, Iceberg is the latest addition to a lengthening list of quality Spanish takes on the horrors of corporate life — films including The Method, Smoking Room and Cold Call — though with a more explicitly accessible, thriller-ish structure than any of its predecessors. It delivers little that’s new but does so with a strong sense of style, while its polished welding of social crit to a thriller chassis should at the least see Iceberg warming festival hearts.

Based on a play by Antonio Tabares, David Canovas’ debut is set almost exclusively in glass and metal tower blocks, terrestrial icebergs where millions of dehumanized beings each day get stressed out under blue lighting by trying to keep smiles on shareholders’ faces. Market analyst Sofia (Verdu), considered to be a safe pair of hands and apparently without a private life, is assigned by her boss Enzo (Carlo d’Ursi) the tricky task of visiting one of the (curiously unnamed) company branches to figure out why three of its employees have committed suicide. (This is an echo of the 2009 real-life case in which 20 employees of the French national telephone company did the same, in events which inspired the film). The reasons for the investigation are not, of course, ethical, but that it could potentially mean a PR disaster.

Sofia initially is met with resistance from head honcho Fresno (Fernando Cayo), who essentially has all his workers under permanent video surveillance, and the head of the works committee, Alejandro Gomez (Carmelo Gomez), a machista philanderer. Effectively a lone female detective working in a world of male criminals, Sofia uncovers a few of the horrors behind the gleaming, bright surface of a world she herself is a part of, a world of impossible deadlines, stress and burnout in the pursuit of something menacingly called Project Iceberg, which is driving everybody crazy but which again goes undescribed.

Along the way, Sofia encounters Jaime (Alex Garcia), who tells her that capitalism turns him on, and insecure, fragile Gabriela (Barbara Goenaga), the only other leading female character and together with Sofia the only one apparently capable of seeing human beings as exactly that, rather than as generators of profit. You wonder what poor Gabriela is actually doing there in the first place, and you wonder, too, why workers would get up to certain things when they know the surveillance cameras are trained on them.

Verdu, the angularity of whose features is a smart visual echo of the hard angles of the working environment, charts with great plausibility Sofia’s progress from corporate darling to skeptic as she slowly uncovers the human stories behind the suicides. Inevitably she starts to question the business ethics (or lack of them) on which her own life is founded, ending up in a boardroom fighting for her corner opposite about 12 very angry men.

But what Sofia discovers is that the world of corporate business is a very nasty place which treats people like things, and sometimes makes them kill themselves. Though it does need constant retelling, the message is nonetheless one which has been floating around Western culture since the time of the Industrial Revolution. Neither does Iceberg tell us much that we don’t already know from, say, Death of a Salesman — and in a film which prides itself on its knowingness of the modern world, it’s surely very innocent to suggest, as the script does, that a little bad press will actually change anything.

Iceberg reveals its theatrical provenance in lengthy, well-written and -played dialogues during which Juan Carlos Gomez’s camera, mostly effectively, is forced to keep moving to maintain the visual interest. On the downside, the script shows us, often via Sofia’s imaginings, the final moments of the suicide victims in scenes which are presumably there to show how her veneer is cracking and how the human side is starting to get to her. Verdu is a good enough actress not to need such visual support.

But this is, nonetheless, a film with a lot of style. The blue hue which hangs over everything is entirely appropriate to the film’s icy view of what human relationships have become, while art director Uxua Castello has pulled off the tricky task of making the film's open-plan corporate workspaces both glossily attractive and repulsively inhuman at the same time; an iceberg is after all, both beautiful and dangerous. The performances, right down to the minor roles (for example, Nieves Medina as a fired employee), are superb, with Gomez in particular being given a too-rare chance to show his acting chops. The sparks fly throughout his cat-and-mouse face-offs with Verdu across the office table, with the two actors at the top of their games. Sometimes there are moments of real insight: The barman Carmelo (Jesus Castejon), for example, knows far more about the company employees than Victor (Jorge Calvo), the head of HR, whose basic line is that he can’t tell Sofia anything he knows. It’s a nicely pointed critique of a culture like ours, straddled confusedly between the contradictory imperatives of data privacy on the one hand and corporate transparency on the other.

Production companies: Tornasol Films, Mistery Producciones, Hernandez y Fernandez, Perenquen Films
Cast: Maribel Verdu, Carmelo Gomez, Fernando Cayo, Barbara Goenaga, Alex García
Director: David Canovas
Screenwriters: David Canovas, Jose Amaro Carrillo, Alberto García Martín, based on a play by Antonio Tabares
Producer: Gerardo Herrero
Executive producers: Mariela Besuievsky, Javier Lopez Blanco
Director of photography: Juan Carlos Gomez
Production designer: Uxua Castello
Costume designer: Paola Torres
Editor: Leire Alonso
Composer: Antonio Hernandez
Sales: Latido Films

Not rated, 95 minutes