Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"Elena is not initially an easy character to like, but her courage and ingenuity is handling the crisis she finds herself in gradually wins viewers over."

There is a time shortly after becoming disabled when people are at their most vulnerable. The initial shock is over; the realisation of what life will be like from now on is just kicking in. Elena (Paula del Río) has found herself largely unable to move in the aftermath of the car crash that killed her sister. She has a powered wheelchair which she can control herself and her father (Miguel Ángel Jenner) has transformed a country house so that she will be able to move around it. He's relieved not to have lost both his girls and ready to do all he can to make things better for her, but all she can feel is resentment and anger at the unfairness of it all. She hasn't yet learned that this is a waste of energy. She hasn't yet learned that she still wants to live. She's about to get a brutal wake-up call.

Also in the house is Belgian shepherd dog Athos (Espiona el Perro). Elena immediately takes a dislike to him, perhaps worried that he might endanger her pet ferret, Luke (Lily la Perra), but Salvo (Jordi Aguilar), who is helping her father to look after her, ensures her that he's a good dog - a bit mischievous, perhaps, but the smartest he's ever met. He's learning to open the doors in the house by means of ropes attached to their handles, and the hope seems to be that, with practice, he'll be able to assist her with this and many other tasks. When Salvo goes to town on an errand, he leaves them together, asking Elena to try and befriend him. Unfortunately for all concerned, Athos has just been bitten by a rabid bat. As he begins to lose his mind, what might have been the beginning of a beautiful friendship turns into a struggle to the death.

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What director José Luis Montesinos has understood well is that essentially, Elena and Athos are in the same position, both trying to navigate a space that has been adapted by not properly designed with their needs in mind, and both experiencing trauma. As Athos struggles to twist an unadorned door handle with his teeth, Elena uses a small grasping stick and the limited movement in her lower right arm to try and perform similar tasks. Speed is of the essence but both have to focus and concentrate in order to achieve their aims. Elena can no longer afford to let her emotions distract her. If she doesn't calm down and use her head - and overcomes lingering fears in the process - she's dead.

The set-up is fraught with tension but this is a difficult scenario to play out; it's obvious that in any straightforward chase or struggle, Athos has an overwhelming advantage. Montesinos has to keep finding clever ways to complicate the situation, and because this would come to seem ridiculous after a while, he fills in the gaps with flashbacks, focusing much of the film on Elena's struggle to cope with her loss. Alongside the disability issue, she's full of confused feelings about her sister and the problems that existed in their relationship before the crash. Del Rio does a good job of carrying the audience with her through this. Working as hard as she does to push everyone else away, Elena is not initially an easy character to like, but her courage and ingenuity is handling the crisis she finds herself in gradually wins viewers over.

None of this would work without an impressive performance from Espiona, one of those dogs who seems to understand on some level what the job of acting is about. Watching Athos go from slightly goofy, cheerful guardian to emotionally distant and then outright aggressive predator is a tragedy in itself, and one from which we know there's no coming back. Clever editing by Luis de la Madrid enhances Espiona's work in the action scenes so that we're in no doubt of the danger this unfortunate animal poses.

Resisting easy solutions or sources of solace, Montesinos shows an acute understanding of the small difficulties and frustrations that disabled people face every day and of the presence of mind it takes to persevere on days when everything seems to go wrong. Therapy aimed at helping people to deal with this often discourages them from thinking about worst case scenarios in which they might not cope. The rabid Athos seems to personify such a scenario. The effect is a film that invites able bodied viewers into that difficult mental space, serving as a reminder that we are more than the sum of what our bodies can do but that all of us are fragile in the grand scheme of things.

Ropes will be on Digital Download from 19th November and can be purchased href="">here.

Reviewed on: 15 Nov 2020
Ropes packshot
A young quadriplegic woman who has lost her sister moves to a country house with her father. A trained dog helps her, but then becomes her worst enemy.
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Director: José Luis Montesinos

Writer: Yako Blesa, José Luis Montesinos

Starring: Paula del Río, Miguel Ángel Jenner, Jordi Aguilar, Paula del Río, Miguel Ángel Jenner, Jordi Aguilar

Year: 2019

Runtime: 87 minutes

Country: Spain

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