The title of Jaime Rosales’ “Bullet in the Head” is exactly two words longer than the film’s audible dialogue, and that’s just the first of the cinematic conventions that the pic eschews in its challengingly oblique take on Basque terrorism. Long, static takes, often shot through windows, and a lack of political and personal context — and hence drama — mean Rosales hands interpretation over to the mind of the viewer. The result is a politically resonant film that of itself comfortably refuses to engage with politics on any but the most abstract level.
It’s hot-potato subject matter and the fact that “Solitary Fragments,” Rosales’ previous film, was a surprise winner of last year’s Spanish Goya award for best film, will generate interest and debate at home; the item’s formal daring should be rewarded by fest and arthouse appearances.
The first victim of the helmer’s decision to dispense with dialogue is the protag’s identity, which we learn only in the final credits. We follow Ion (ursine nonpro Ion Arretxe — also the pic’s art director), through the routines of his daily life. We start with him looking out of his apartment window, with the vague suggestion of a brawl in the street below. After scenes around the city, he drives out to the countryside with a colleague — it comes as visual relief to encounter some wider spaces — and then crosses the border into the French Basque Country. All suspense, such as it is, is contained in the title: Whose bullet, and whose head? The answer comes in a brutal car-park climax.
Rosales is more interested in simply recording the protagonist’s actions than in judging them. The hope is presumably to force the viewer into revising their own judgments about human motivation. By stripping away dialogue and hence context, the film also points up the absurdity of violence. Two further points, neither particularly revealing, are that “normal” people are capable of “terrible” things — whatever those words mean — and that when the issue is terrorism, we find it hard to listen. On both scores, the pic lacks the richness and nuance of, say, similar themes from Michael Haneke.
Visually, “Bullet in the Head” is all long, zoomed takes, which will drive anyone who isn’t up for the ride to despair. Objects are often interposed between viewer and action, another way to intentionally create an uncomfortable viewing experience. Rosales likes to devise a single technique and pursue it obsessively — in “Fragments” it was split-screen, while here he surrounds the action with window-frames conveniently, the protag conducts many of his dealings next to windows), keeping the viewer at the kind of distance that makes easy judgments impossible. But though each scene is framed with care, less attention has been paid to the details than in Rosales’ previous work.
Soundwork makes a key contribution to the atmospherics. For the record, in Spain, the pic will be released simultaneously in theaters and on continuous loop in a Madrid art gallery.