Snuff movies, true-crime TV shows and other forms of violent entertainment figure heavily in the plot of “Thesis,” a surprisingly restrained thriller about a film student who becomes the star in her own life-or-death drama. Newcomer Alejandro Amenabar provides an inventive plot and a sufficient supply of red herrings, but fails to sustain suspense in the pic’s draggy second half. Theatrical prospects are iffy. Even so, “Thesis” could click in the international video market with savvy handling.
Ana Torrent is well cast as Angela, a Madrid film student who wants to write her thesis on violence in movies. Her faculty adviser offers to help by searching the university’s archives for violent videos. Unfortunately, he wanders into a secret storage room and picks up an unmarked videocassette, and he’s shocked into a fatal heart attack while viewing the tape.
Angela discovers her mentor dead in a university screening room. Impulsively, she steals the tape he was watching. At home, she discovers the video is a recording of the torture-murder of a co-ed who disappeared three years earlier.
Rather than alert the police, Angela decides to investigate on her own. She seeks info about violent video from an eccentric classmate, Chema (Fele Martinez), an avid fan of porno and splatter movies. He looks at the snuff video and immediately recognizes that it was shot with a special model of video camera. Just a few days later, Angela spots one of those cameras in the hands of a handsome student, Bosco (Eduardo Noriega), who just happens to know the long-missing co-ed.
Amenabar effectively develops a slow-simmering attraction between Angela and Bosco, slyly hinting that she may be drawn to him because of the danger he possibly represents. Meanwhile, Chema fumes jealously and does a great deal to arouse audience suspicion. Other prime suspects include Castro (Javier Elorriaga), Angela’s new faculty adviser; and Yolanda (Rosa Campillo), Bosco’s possessive girlfriend.
Despite some whopping improbabilities — would snuff movie producers really hide their master tapes in a university storage room? –“Thesis” generates genuine tension. Pic also manages a few pointed comments about the relationship between violence and voyeurism, particularly in a final scene that has the host of a Spanish tabloid TV show warning viewers that they’re about to see a clip from a snuff movie. The viewers appear to be raptly attentive.
Torrent manages the difficult trick of seeming intelligent even when her character does some pretty dumb things. Martinez is aptly ambiguous in his portrayal of the surly Chema.
Hans Burmann’s moody cinematography is a major asset. Other tech values are first-rate.
According to pic’s production notes, Amenabar is, at 23, the youngest feature filmmaker in Spain. It will be interesting to see whether he can fulfill the promise he displays here.