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Running time: 125 minutes
Directed by: Alejandro Almenábar
Starring: Ana Torrent
IMDB rating: 7.6
Tesis begins with a train stopping and an announcement being made that everyone has to get off due to someone having been hit due to having fallen/jumped on the tracks. The camera follows a young woman (Angela), and as she gets off and walks along the platform slowly a crowd gathers, looking down at the corpse. For a moment we're not sure if she'll try to look, but eventually she does. I thought this was a pretty good opening scene in that it got me interested right away and revealed something about the personality of the central character before she'd even spoken or interacted with anyone.
Angela is a university student, doing her thesis on audio-visual violence. While researching the subject she befriends Chema, who seems a bit strange but has a large collection of violent films which will be valuable to her work. While in the private video section of the university, she discovers a snuff tape, and after to showing it to Chema, finds out that the victim was a student who hasn't been seen for two years.
Angela's suspicions are aroused by a student named Bosco, who seems to own the same type of videocamera that was used to make the video. But as she gets to know him she starts to doubt that he was involved, despite Chema insisting otherwise.
I'm not sure why I didn't get around to watching Tesis sooner. Aside from the fact that it's a highly rated Spanish horror (which is my kind of thing), it's written and directed by the same man responsible for one of my favourite foreign films, Abre Los Ojos.
Despite watching a lot of films, I'd struggle to clearly define what makes a good director, particularly from a technical standpoint. One technique that I noticed and liked here was that we empathise with Angela partly because we share her viewpoint and knowledge. She is in almost every scene, so we're not aware of anything that she is oblivious to. A good example of this is when she watched the snuff tape. At first she tries to ignore it while Chema puts it on. She turns her back on the screen, not wanting to look. All we get from it are the screams of the victim. And when she does turn around and see the video for the first time, so do we.
On the other hand, two are my pet peeves are dream sequences and scenes that are too dark. Too often, directors seem to use darkness to build tension rather than being a bit more creative. Other times a genuine effort is made to make a good, visually dark film, but I still end up disliking it. A good example was The Descent, which many people liked. Though it wasn't bad, I thought there was far too much time when I had no idea what exactly was going on. I find this kind of thing frustrating rather than frightening or unnerving. However there is a scene in Tesis where the power goes out indoors, and a box of matches are the only source of light. We then get brief periods of light followed by moments of darkness as the next one is struck up. I thought this worked pretty well, there aren't key events that go unseen, but you simply have no idea if someone is creeping up or even already there. Or perhaps it was just that I was really into the film and therefore cared more about what was going on.
I'm not keen on dream sequences because they're often used for cheap scares, or because the filmmaker has a great idea for a scene, but can't find a way to put it into the narrative, but decides to work it in anyway. It also harms the viewing experience for the rest of the film, as any interesting development is met by sceptisism because it may turn out to only exist in someone's head a minute later. That was the case here when a pretty cool scene that would've served as a key plot development was ended by Angela waking up.
Still, that's not a major complaint, and doesn't really take anything away from the overall quality of the film. Tesis works because it has that 'edge' to it that a great horror-thriller requires. Another big plus is that the it continually develops the story and characters, meaning that you constantly want to know more, but don't have to sit through any long boring scenes that go nowhere as the filmmaker tries to stretch out the tension without actually giving the viewer anything worthwhile to watch.
I also liked that I wasn't certain how they were going to end things or who the bad guy was until it was revealed.
As for the negative, it was pretty illogical that they did not go to the police at any point. 99% of people would make that their top priority were they to see a video of a missing person being tortured and killed. Upon seeing the man she thinks may be responsible, she starts to follow him. When he notices her, she backs off and tries to run away. Though they were in a crowded college when she starts to run, she ends up going through random doors until it's just the two of them. Of course, people sometimes do stupid things when stressed, but running from a public place filled with people into a deserted corridor is the sort of thing that happens in a crappy slasher movie.
Still, I don't mind a few minor flaws when everything else is so good, which is the case here. An original story, perfect acting and well crafted characters combine to make this a very good film.