Childish Games

Childish Games


Reviewed by: Owen Van Spall

Spanish language horror films get a lot of credit for giving the genre a shot in the arm. Under the watchful gaze of directors, such as Guillermo del Toro, films including The Orphanage and [Rec] are praised for their dynamic editing, effects and sound, their reworking of classic psychological cinematic tools such as those mastered by Hitchcock, and their distilling of European myths and fables and classic ghost stories.

And it is to Hitchcock that Dictado's director Antonio Chavarrías tips his hat, and freely admits doing so. This thriller deploys the whole bag of tricks in fact: a moody earthy color scheme, ominous music, surreal dream sequences and a narrative that torments its main character by the fact that his suspicions of supernatural goings on lack any solid proof - even though something just doesn't seem right to him.

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When novelist Mario (Marc Rodríguez) turns up one day at the school where Daniel teaches, the thirty-something teacher is shocked. He hasn't seen Mario for years, but once they spent a summer at a rural forest retreat together as pre-teens as their parents - Daniel’s father and Mario’s mother – were planning marriage. Mario's mother also had a daughter, Clara. Something terrible happened to Clara out in that forest, we will learn later, something that Daniel has until now buried in his memory. As for Mario, he appears unstable, babbling that Daniels needs, absolutely needs, to see his young daughter Julia. Daniel refuses, only to hear the next day that Mario slit his wrists in the bath as his daughter watched.

The unexpected re-encounter with Mario, and the suicide, proceeds to bring both families back together. Daniel and his wife Laura agree to provide a temporary home for the dead man’s daughter, though Daniel is the more hesitant of the two. Laura, who is childless, bonds with Julia from the moment they meet. Daniel however, has a very different experience. He can't shake the fact that Julia seems so… familiar. She addresses him - when Laura isn't around - as if she knows him from before. Her demeanour, so warm around Laura, darkens when he is in the room with her, her brown eyes glaring at him accusatorily. There's the strange ribbon in her hair, which Daniel feels he has seen before. The songs she sings, which Daniel has heard from before. And then the bad dreams start, dreams of earth, water, death. What started as a mere temporary guardianship devolves into a nightmarish isolation for Daniel, and he becomes steadily convinced that his secrets from that night in the forest have a price - and it is now due to be paid.

Dictado actually eschews overtly supernatural thrills and is refreshingly CGI-lite, staying more in the terrain of a psychological thriller with admirable ambiguity about the supernatural nature of the goings on. It was the director's intention to suggest that the merest unprovable hint of “evil” can unravel perfect happiness even in rational people, and he at least sticks true to that concept in the plot.

However, such Spanish language thriller/horror terrain is still a crowded field and Dictado can't get away from that. There are simply not enough surprises to be had and as the film progresses one gets a sense that a series of boxes are being ticked. Scary staring girl who may or may not be supernatural in origin? Check. A previously loving couple destroyed by visions and fears that only one half of the couple seems to be experiencing? Check. A dark past creeping back to haunt one of the characters? Put a tick in that box, too. The actual moments of tension are also signposted too easily through the score or the camera's focus on a particular location or object. You'll see what's coming.

It is a shame as the performances of actors Juan Diego Botto and Barbara Lennie, playing Daniel and Laura, are solid. They ably bring out - without the expected hysterics - the shifting nature of the relationship as Julia works her way into Laura's heart and Daniel's nightmares. It is not the cast's fault that they have a plot that doesn't surprise enough, and forces one of the characters to go through what feels like a fourth act sharp right turn in behaviour in order to reach the denouement.

A film such as this also rests much of its credibility on the performance of the young child actor who is has to play the source of the disturbance at the heart of the plot. Sadly, young actor Mágica Pérez is stuck with the familiar playbook of 'spooky' behaviour as Julia. Long glares at Daniel, strange whispers and sing-songs, sudden appearances and disappearances, and a switch to butter-wouldn't-melt behaviour whenever Laura is around.

There are some intriguing touches, such as the surreal dream sequences, and the atmosphere does at times become quite involving. But this story of isolation, guilt and memory is just too predictable a thriller, and predictable films can't really be thrillers. It's a shame as it feels that a lot of work and care went into making Dictado. It just simply wasn't enough this time, though seeing as ambiguity lies at the heart of this tale, it is a film that might actually be better on a second viewing.

Reviewed on: 12 Feb 2012
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The sudden appearance of a childhood friend and his young daughter leads a schoolteacher on an unwanted psychological journey into his past.
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Director: Antonio Chavarrías

Writer: Sergi Belbel, Antonio Chavarrías

Starring: Juan Diego Botto, Bárbara Lennie, Mágica Pérez, Marc Rodríguez, Àgata Roca, Nora Navas, Monti Castiñeiras, Maria Pau Pigem

Year: 2012

Runtime: 95 minutes

Country: Spain


BIFF 2012

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