Film sustains interest as an understated drama that always seems just one outburst away from terrifying.

Charged with alternating currents of clammy suspense and implacable tragedy, “Rabia” sustains interest as an understated chamber drama that always seems just one violent outburst away from something truly terrifying. Ecuadoran helmer Sebastian Cordero (“Cronicas”) enhances the overall mood of claustrophobic and voyeuristic dread with perfect-pitch performances by his first-rate players and lenser Enrique Chediak’s atmospheric Steadicam visuals. International theatrical prospects are hard to forecast, though prominent billing of Guillermo del Toro as a producer might generate arthouse and ancillary interest.

Opening scenes are slyly misdirecting, appearing to portend a downbeat drama about exploited South American workers in contempo Spain. Jose Maria (Gustavo Sanchez Parra), a taciturn brooder with anger-management problems, enjoys the first blush of romance with another immigrant, Rosa (Martina Garcia), the housekeeper for an aging couple residing in a large, run-down mansion. When a passing stranger makes a rude remark about Rosa, Jose Maria beats the lout to a pulp.

And when his foreman at a construction site tries to fire Jose Maria, only one of the men walks away from the subsequent violent dust-up.

“Rabia” (Spanish for “rage”) only gradually reveals its true colors when Jose Maria, fleeing a police dragnet, breaks into the mansion where Rosa is employed and hides out in the seldom-attended attic and upper floor. From this vantage point, he remains a clandestine spectator to Rosa’s day-to-day activities, communicating with her only through occasional calls — fortuitously, the house has two phone lines — while he pretends to be far away.

Rosa’s elderly employees (Concha Velasco, Xabier Elorriaga) prove surprisingly sympathetic to her plight when she reveals she is pregnant by her fugitive lover. But the couple’s ne’er-do-well son (Alex Brendemuhl) has no idea what he’s risking when he attempts to force himself on the housekeeper — while upstairs, in the shadows, Jose Maria watches and waits.

Working from a novel by Sergio Bizzio, Cordero subtly depicts Jose Maria as a hopeless captive — under virtual house arrest, to be sure, but also a prisoner of his own anger — whose possible salvation remains tantalizingly, even mockingly, out of reach. As time goes by, he seems more like a ghost than a human being. But he remains just corporeal enough to be a constant, undetected threat. Parra evokes equal measures of pity and uneasiness with his aptly enigmatic portrayal.

Eugenio Caballero’s inspired production design within the going-to-seed mansion complements Cordero’s efforts to maintain a delicate balance between credibly detailed drama and emotionally resonant metaphor. Indeed, “Rabia” often comes across as a haunted house story, albeit one in which the restless wraith is not quite yet dead.

Rabia

Spain-Colombia-Mexico

Production

A Telecino Cinema (Spain)/Dynamo Capital (Colombia) production in association with Tequila Gang (Mexico). (International sales: Wild Bunch, Paris.) Produced by Alvaro Augustin, Rodrigo Guerrero, Eneko Lizarraga, Bertha Navarro, Guillermo del Toro. Executive producers, Elena Manrique, Guadalupe Balaguer, Jaime Ortiz de Artinano, Javier Palomo, Andres Calderon, Cristian Conti, Michel Ruben. Directed, written by Sebastian Cordero, based on the novel by Sergio Bizzio.

Crew

Camera (color), Enrique Chediak; editor, David Gallart; music, Lucio Godoy; production designer, Eugenio Caballero; sound, Alvaro Lopez, Oriol Tarrago; assistant director, Ana Charte. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Contemporary World Cinema), Sept. 10, 2009. Running time: 89 MIN.

With

Martin Garcia, Gustavo Sanchez Parra, Concha Velasco, Xabier Elorriaga, Iciar Bollain, Alex Brendemuhl.

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