Mallorca-born Agusti Villaronga, who achieved notoriety with his first film, “In a Glass Cage,” in 1985, this time offers a grim, ultimately violent, homoerotic melodrama that unfolds mainly in a sanitarium for tuberculosis patients in the mid-1940s. Mixing religion, death and sex in just about equal proportions, this brooding item is probably too dark and bleak for most tastes, and only modest returns are to be expected in territories where prestigious Spanish productions are released theatrically. Ancillary is more promising, and there will undoubtedly be more festival bookings for this morbid love story.
Pic opens in a small inland Mallorcan village during the Civil War in 1936. Four children are witness to the execution of leftists by pro-Franco civilians; in a violent act of revenge, a boy whose father was among the victims kills the son of the leading executioner before committing suicide.
Ten years later, the three who survived this traumatic incident are reunited in a sanitarium. Sensitive Manuel (Bruno Bergonzini) is seriously ill and has embraced religion as a means of alleviating his pain. The much tougher Andreu (Roger Casamajor), who boasts about his success with women but who has secretly been the lover of Morell (Juli Mira), an elderly black marketeer, is a new arrival at the hospital and has only just contracted TB.
Francisca (Antonia Torrens), who as a child had adored Andreu — and who had later lost her virginity to him — has now become a nun, and is working as a nurse.
As time goes by, both young men get sicker. Manuel reacts by becoming religious to an almost fanatical degree (he claims that God is inside him, and shows signs of the stigmata); at the same time, he is tormented by the sexual feelings he has for Andreu. The ministrations, and sexual favors, given him by Carmen (Angela Molina), the middle-aged wife of the hospital caretaker, are of little help.
Andreu, meanwhile, becomes progressively frustrated and angry, even killing a cat in a ferocious rage (a scene likely to appall animal lovers). And Francisca, who loves both men, can only watch as events inexorably build to the tragic, bloody finale, which involves fairly graphic gay sex as well as murders committed by ax and knife.
Delving deeply into fundamental themes of death and religion, Villaronga convincingly depicts the horror of the scourge of tuberculosis (which reached epidemic proportions in 1940s Spain) as it strikes down the young. There’s an intensity to the film that’s at times unsettling, but the climactic bloodbath tips the film into more conventional melodrama.
The male leads — Casamajor as the apparently macho Andreu and wide-eyed Bergonzini as the fragile Manuel — inhabit their roles with complete conviction. Torrens’ Francisca remains a sketchily drawn character on the margins of the story.
The steely photography of Jaume Peracaula and the eerie music score by Javier Navarrete are among the film’s major accomplishments.