Tesis -AKA Thesis (1996)
The under-the-radar factor:
Chilean-Spanish filmmaker Alejandro Amenábar has gone on to direct attention grabbers such as big-budget Hollywood fare (The Other), as well as Oscar winner The Sea Inside (Best Foreign Language Film). Not as widely seen through most of North America is this, his feature film debut.
We all start somewhere and in the career of Amenábar, his feature film lift-off was with this Spanish language thriller set in the world of academia.
Angela (Ana Torrent) is writing a thesis about the effects that violence in media command over its audience. The professor overseeing her work agrees to look into the contents of the university video library to locate any particularly appropriate nasty stuff for her to do research on. In the meantime, she has somehow become aware that a rather hygienically challenged porn/horror geek of a student named Chema (Fele Martinez) has gore to spare in his collection. He reluctantly agrees to give her a view of his own vile wares, which he of course enjoys and she can barely stand to watch. But she does...sometimes covering her face...but peeking between her fingers until she says she can't watch anymore...but does again. Like in the poster to the left. See, I wasn't lying.
It turns out that her professor not only has admittance privileges to the school's official VHS library but also knows of a hidden passageway to a secret room where other tapes are held. The asthmatic teacher grabs a hold of one to view in a screening room where the contents of the video apparently proves to be a little too much for him to handle. Angela finds him dead; she's shocked but also seemingly intrigued, wondering if he was provoked into death by what he was regarding. She not only doesn't report her mentor's passing but also makes off with the material in question.
Angela shares her discovery with Chema, who quickly gets the picture of what he's observing. It not only turns out to be an authentic snuff video but one where the victim is a former student named Vanessa who mysteriously disappeared a few years before. Further investigation concludes that the grizzly production had to have been shot on a particular Hi-8 camera ... like the one being lugged around by the obscenely handsome campus hunk Bosco (Eduardo Noreiga). While trying to determine if the dude with the smoldering eyes is a murderer (Chema is certain; Angela not so much), the replacement professor looking after the mentoring of the thesis brings a new round of twists and turns into the proceedings. Between dealing with her conflicting feelings over Bosco, the handsome devil's girlfriend that he may or may not have broke off with, a troublesome sister who may be the next victim, and the lingering suspicions over the new prof (and perhaps even Chema) ...let's just say Angela finds things to be mighty confusing. And increasingly dangerous for herself...
I know I'm in the minority but I found The Sea Inside to be an overrated soap opera, cajoling to middlebrow cinematic sensibilities...or worse. Sadly, Tesis strikes me as being very much the same in spirit, if not genre.
No denying that this is a strongly cast film - the three leads are all up to giving this effort a go - but being well-suited doesn't matter much when one is not well-supported. While the production values are professional, the overall presentation is pretty conventional, including the cutting-on-dialogue routine one usually sees with more pedestrian projects. The twists and turns the script introduces start off as intriguing, progress to confusing. and, ultimately, graduate to exhaustively irritating, particularly after one's initial suspicion of each character's role in the tale turns out to have been pretty accurate in the end. Angela often comes across as being a doofus, such as telegraphing her obvious panic around Bosco (her first attempt to flee his presence results in a ridiculously presented chase-down-the-halls scene), among other brain-spasm moments. For a so-called thriller, the results are not all that suspenseful.
And the film's seemingly grand statement, that we live in a hypocritical society that denouces violence in media while also willfully lapping it up - that's about as big and original a revelation as exposing that professional wrestling matches are fixed. The fact we have moral contradictions is news? Motorists are disgusted with themselves for rubber-necking at the scenes of accidents but continue to do so. People are appalled that Jennifer Lawrence's nudes were leaked onto the internet - and then search endlessly for a peek. We really know ourselves more than Amenábar gives credit for and no ground-breaking territory is being exposed here.
Tesis provides nothing original in either content or presentation. I do have a few more Amenábar flicks to catch up on - I hope he doesn't end up joining David O. Russell in my "strange why people make a big deal about this filmmaker" club.