“Pretexts,” the defiantly unsexy title of this debut from Catalan thesp Silvia Munt, was chosen because we hang our fragile happiness on pretexts we invent — most often the search for love. Emotionally perceptive, challenging pic runs two narratives side by side. One, set in a geriatric hospital, brings this abstract idea to dramatic life better than the other one, an unexceptional study of a marriage in crisis. Fests (helmer won best director at the Malaga fest) are the natural destination for this stimulating, involving auteur item, with some arthouse appearances likely.
An almighty domestic blowup between theater director Viena (Munt) and her doctor husband Daniel (Ramon Madaula) ensues from his refusal to attend the opening of a play, “Pretexts,” which she is helming.
Thesps in the play are stereotypically neurotic Marta (Merce Llorens) and Ricardo (Francesc Garrido), with whom Viena is on more intimate terms than she is with Daniel. Connections between pic and play are artfully made.
A parallel story unfolds at the geriatric hospital where Daniel works, which feels more rooted in reality than the theater storyline. Eva (Laia Marull) is the night nurse, a quiet, meek creature who sleeplessly and lovingly devotes herself to her charges, particularly Claudio (91-year-old vet Manuel Alexandre).
Lucas (Alvaro Cervantes), Daniel’s child by his first marriage, makes recordings of various people for the sound montages he enjoys putting together.
Pic is as much about its silences and gestures as about its words, and, dramatically, it almost grinds to a halt before Eva steals some sleeping pills from the hospital.
Pic gets top marks for the chemistry among the characters; at times, the air of intimacy is fly-on-the-wall. Although the versatile Munt gives a committed, typically intense perf, there is little to distinguish Viena from any number of middle-aged women in crisis, and one senses how she’ll end up from the start.
The real drama takes place within the silently suffering Eva, and Marull, a thesp underexploited by Spanish cinema, is compelling as a young woman adored by her patients but with little self-esteem.
Camera work is often hand-held, though tight close-ups are overused. Appropriately, pic is dark and claustrophobic. Film buffs will enjoy the fact that Viena was named after the Joan Crawford character in “Johnny Guitar,” and that Peggy Lee’s rendition of that wonderful title song is crucial to pic’s melancholy mood.