A couple of characterless comedies, particularly last year's borderline-inept "Nothing in the Fridge," gave little warning of the pleasures of youngish helmer Alvaro Fernandez Armero's first thriller, "The Art of Dying." A sexy young cast, a strong, if imitative, plotline that is only occasionally ridiculous, and good production values make for a satisfyingly rounded, energetic piece of entertainment.

A couple of characterless comedies, particularly last year’s borderline-inept “Nothing in the Fridge,” gave little warning of the pleasures of youngish helmer Alvaro Fernandez Armero’s first thriller, “The Art of Dying.” A sexy young cast, a strong, if imitative, plotline that is only occasionally ridiculous, and good production values make for a satisfyingly rounded, energetic piece of entertainment. Only major quibbles are occasional sloppiness in the scripting, especially in the final 20 minutes, and a surfeit of characters. Pic is down-the-line mainstream and has done bang-up biz at home, despite opening to poor reviews. But offshore buyers and auds may feel material is too standard issue to perk much interest.

Nacho (Gustavo Salmeron), a death-obsessed artist with an unpleasant personality, mysteriously disappears. Four years later, his ID card is found and world-weary Inspector Quintana (vet Emilio Gutierrez-Caba) reopens the case with a visit to Ivan (Fele Martinez), who is in the process of breaking up with his g.f., Clara (Maria Esteve).

Ivan and Clara, along with buddies Patricia (Lucia Jimenez), bartender Carlos (Adria Collado), disco dancer Candela (Elsa Pataky) and hunk Ramon (Sergio Peris-Mencheta), have so far denied that Nacho accompanied them on a weekend trip to a country house at the time of his disappearance. But he did; and now, terrified, they decide to dig up his body and move it.

During the exhumation, fire breaks out in the house and Ivan sees a shadow standing in the flames. Hereon, flashbacks fill us in on the increasingly nervous relationships among the friends, while in the present Ivan starts getting visits from Nacho’s ghost and becomes the object of the others’ suspicions. Tensions rise before they start dying unpleasant deaths.

The suspense of all this is nicely carried, even though characterization leaves much to be desired. Candela and Carlos in particular seem to be in pic only as a pretext for their flashy deaths.

Script sets up a series of supernatural paradoxes and contradictions which it struggles hard to resolve naturalistically. Pic just about pulls it off, and most of the puzzles are satisfyingly explained in retrospect. Biggest twist is held back until late in the proceedings.

Perfs are variable, with Martinez standing out in the lead role, comfortable in the insecure-teenager mode he developed for Alejandro Amenabar’s “Open Your Eyes.” As his girlfriend, the comedy-groomed Esteve — helmer’s real-life partner — is unconvincing, unable to cope with the intensity her role demands. Visually, pic looks bigger than its budget, with Javier Salmones’ lensing coaxing some good techno-chill atmospherics from the Madrid locations.

The Art of Dying

Spain

Production

An Aurum release of an Aurum production, in association with TVE, Canal Plus. (International sales: Aurum, Madrid.) Produced by Francisco Ramos. Directed by Alvaro Fernandez Armero. Screenplay, Juan Vicente Pozuelo, Francisco Javier Roy.

Crew

Camera (color), Javier Salmones; editor, Ivan Aledo; music, Bingen Mendizabal; art director, Alain Bainee; sound (Dolby), Ivan Marin. Reviewed at Cine Callao, Madrid, March 29, 2000. (In Cannes Film Festival --- market.) Running time: 102 MIN.

With

Fele Martinez, Maria Esteve, Gustavo Salmeron, Lucia Jimenez, Adria Collado, Elsa Pataky, Sergio Peris-Mencheta, Emilio Gutierrez-Caba.
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