Spanish director and scriptwriter Alejandro Amenábar has gotten a fair amount of attention in the English-speaking world of late, and well-deserved it is. At the moment, he is probably best known for directing The Others, as well as directing and writing Open Your Eyes (Abre los ojos), the outstanding film that spawned a totally unnecessary remake in Vanilla Sky. Amenábar’s film Thesis (original title: Tesis) takes us back to 1996, where we can see that his success is no fluke: it has been in the cards from the beginning.
Thesis was director/writer Alejandro Amenábar’s first feature film, made when he was only 23 after deciding to stop studying film and start making it. The film Thesis begins with Ángela (Ana Torrent), a film student at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid (as Amenábar was) who is working on a thesis on audiovisual violence in the media. Her research leads her toward more and more extreme examples of media violence, putting her in contact with a fellow student, Chema (Fele Martínez), who has an extensive collection of gory videos. But the real horror starts when she stumbles across evidence that behind the urban legend of “snuff” films there lies a horrifying reality… and that the murderous filmmakers involved know that she knows too much.
Though it is in fact a very entertaining, tension-filled thriller, Thesis is more than that; the film is self-reflective and critical, both of the film industry and of viewers themselves, even as they watch the movie. Throughout the film, Thesis circles around a dark dichotomy in human behavior: we don’t want to look, but we are compelled to anyway; we want to reject violence, but it draws us in. The opening scene of the film encapsulates this theme, hinting at the greater development of it in the film: Ángela is coming home on the Madrid subway when the train halts unexpectedly; the conductor informs them that a man has just committed suicide by throwing himself in front of the train. “Don’t look,” he says, but can’t help adding, “he’s been cut in two.” The faces of the disembarking passengers are filled with horror and disgust, yet they crowd around trying to get a look at the gruesome scene before they are herded away.
The character of Ángela is a perfect stand-in for the viewer in this way. Unlike the more openly voyeuristic Chema, she claims that her interest in violence is strictly academic: for her thesis. Yet we can’t help but realize that she is secretly drawn to it as well; realizing this, it disgusts her, but still compels her. Both Torrent and Martínez give us believable characters who also manage to break stereotyped “thriller” conventions about the behavior of male and female characters; they are, and remain, well-rounded and interesting characters who develop as the story unfolds. Thesis also features a young-looking Eduardo Noriega as Bosco; he appears in the protagonist’s role in Amenábar’s next film, Open Your Eyes.
From beginning to end, Thesis takes a hard look at “violence as entertainment,” pushing the viewer to be more self-aware, to recognize the potential for violence that exists within all of us and the possible consequences of satisfying some of our darker desires. The film asks, is “what the public wants” always right? Where should a filmmaker draw the line? Is there a hidden hypocrisy in the fact that we are both repelled and attracted by scenes of violence? Link
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