On this snowy evening I decided to watch the second of three DVDs sent to me for Christmas by my friend Raúl Ansola: Alejandro Amenábar's 1996 Tesis (Thesis). It was emphatically the wrong film to watch with the lights off.
Tesis opens with Ángela (Ana Torrent), a film student in Madrid, beginning to research her thesis on violence in film. She asks her portly thesis advisor, Dr. Figueroa (Miguel Picazo), if he can access the university archives to obtain for her extremely graphic footage that had been deemed too strong for public consumption so that she might discuss it in her work. Figueroa seems puzzled by her request, the implication being that it's odd for such an attractive young woman to be so interested in seeing violent death on film. But the viewer knows better: the opening scene of the film is of Ángela on a subway train that has been suddenly stopped at a platform due to a suicide: a man has thrown himself from the platform into the path of the oncoming train and has been cut in half. Metro employees guide the passengers out of the car, admonishing them not to look at the corpse, not to be morbid. Nearly all the passengers look away, some even shielding their gaze with newspapers, but Ángela breaks free of the queue and and cranes her neck for a look. A guard stops her, and both she and the viewer are deprived of a glimpse. It's a smart move on Amenábar's part, and is one of the keys to his thoughtful presentation of such sordid material.
Ángela makes the acquaintance of one of her classmates, Chema (the excellent Fele Martínez), a long-haired, bespectacled loner who wears horror-movie t-shirts and has, even at the remove of film, somewhat suspect personal hygiene. He lives in a spectacularly squalid dump of an apartment, to which he takes Ángela to show her his collection of films showing dismemberments, executions, shootings, beatings, etc. Ángela professes to be horrified and disgusted, but she can't help looking at the screen nonetheless.
Her professor finds a particular tape in the grimy bowels of a sub-basement at the university, puts it up, alone, in a small screening room, and promptly dies, presumably from an asthma attack induced from what he saw on the screen: when Ángela finds his body, his inhaler is lying at his feet. She removes the tape from the player and takes it home with her, telling no one about either the tape or her discovery of the corpse. At home—and her home is always brightly lit and sunny, in contrast to the bleak darkness and drab colors of the rest of the film’s locations—she waits for her family to go out and pops the tape into the player. As the color bars fill the screen, she chooses to lower the picture's contrast until the screen is black, leaving the volume up. What she hears is chilling: the sounds of a woman screaming, begging for her life. She dubs this audio onto a cassette, and listens to it obsessively through headphones, never looking at the images. This clear-cut decision—to look or not to look—is again one of the centerpieces of the film. It is not until she reluctantly shows the tape to Chema that she discovers what it depicts: it shows the torture, shooting, and dismemberment of Vanessa, a former student at the university who disappeared two years earlier. Amenábar gives Tesis's viewers short clips of the carnage: Vanessa being beaten, the sound of the gunshot brutally cutting short her screams, and quick takes of saws running through her torso, ripping out her intestines. The footage, even in such short bursts, is horrific, but what's telling is that like Ángela, who covers her face but peers through her fingers, we can't quite look away, either. Chema's flat is full of horror-movie posters and mock tombstones, and while he's odd, he at least seems to know who he is. Ángela sleeps under a poster of Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix in Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho, and she too is on a journey of self-discovery: at the outset, she has no idea who she is.
Chema and Ángela begin to investigate who might be responsible for Vanessa's death. Horizontal lines in the footage indicate to the brainy Chema that a certain type of camera must have been used, which leads them to Bosco (Eduardo Noriega), a sexy but deeply creepy student who was a friend of Vanessa's and who takes an intense liking to Ángela, worming his way into her life and her family's affections. The second half of Tesis is a fairly standard thriller: Who is responsible for not only Vanessa's death, but the deaths of dozens of other young women, all documented in snuff films? Is it the smarmy Bosco, about whom Ángela has kinky dreams of in which he buries his face between her legs, but not before holding a knife to her throat and drawing blood? Or is it the quirky but kind of charming Chema, who is grungy and suspect and who constantly mutters "Joder" under his breath? Or is it Castro (Xavier Elorriaga), the professor who has replaced Figueroa as Ángela's thesis advisor? I'll say nothing else about the plot, for the last hour of the film is full of nail-biting twists and turns. But in some ways the first half is actually a bit more scary, because it is there that we see Ángela wrestling with the film's central question: To look or not to look? Why are we so obsessed with images of violent death? Why, to step back further, do we like films like Tesis, which deal with such dark subject matter? I'm not sure that Tesis satisfactorily answers these questions. Throughout the film, I actually kept longing for some slightly more incisive commentary on the public's obsession with violence. (In some ways, it's interesting that this film is European: Europe is much more restrained in its depiction of violence, while giving free reign to sexuality on screen; Americans, by contrasts, show gory violence of all kinds and yet flinch when it comes to sex.) I began to think that Amenábar was not going to follow through with some of the issues raised by his premise, but then, in the last five minutes, set in a hospital and which I will not describe, he delivers a vicious and bitterly ironic comment on why we need to see violence on film. It's a supremely clever finale, and is the final flourish that the film needs, for it had turned, in the second half, into fairly obvious horror material, complete with horror-movie music and figures lurking in the shadows. The last five minutes elevate it to something much more.
Amenábar has gone on to do more polished films since: Abre los ojos (1997), The Others (2001), probably the best ghost story on film in the last twenty years, and the recent Agora (2009). But Tesis, made for almost no money, is slick and stylish and one hell of a debut, and as Amenábar is young (only 37), one can only imagine what he'll get up to next. His leads in Tesis are excellent. Ana Torrent, who from certain angles looks like a young Enya, plays her role with remarkable restraint. It would have been easy to sink into screaming-bimbo territory, but she does so only once, when some lights go out, but it's okay—I practically screamed, myself. Fele Martínez is marvelous as Chema, the kind of character about whom you keep saying to yourself, "I hope he's not the killer, I hope he's not the killer." Eduardo Noriega is almost too sexy as Bosco, and this of course makes the viewer trust him even less.
Ultimately, while Tesis doesn't really answer the questions that it poses, you realize that just posing the questions is what matters. Ángela's abandoned thesis isn't even necessary—by film’s end, she has become that thesis herself.