A TV feel pervades the grand-style filmmaking of “The Dancer and the Thief,” Fernando Trueba’s adaptation, together with son Jonas and author Antonio Skarmeta (“Il Postino”), of Skarmeta’s award-winning novel. Script and sentiment never escape that smallscreen aura, despite the presence of top thesp Ricardo Darin as an ex-con safecracker in Santiago, Chile, worshipped by a golden-tongued young thief in love with a mute ballet dancer. Lush lensing and blandly likable characters should work well with older auds in Spanish-lingo territories, but offshore, arthouse hearts are unlikely to be stolen.
After five years in the slammer, Nico Vergara Grey (Darin) is a reformed thief looking to reconnect with his wife Teresa (Ariadna Gil) and son. Also getting out of jail is Angel (Abel Ayala), a young man just past his teens locked up for “borrowing” a horse. Sleazy warden Santoro (Julio Jung), fearful Angel will want revenge after the warden brutally raped him (not seen), gives killer Marin (Luis Dubo) a week’s leave so he can murder the young man.
Nico’s wife wants nothing to do with him, while Angel pesters Nico to collaborate on a heist that will net them a hefty chunk of change left over from the days of the Pinochet dictatorship. Meanwhile, Angel has fallen in love with Victoria (Miranda Bodenhofer), a mute orphan with self-destructive tendencies, whose parents were killed during the junta.
Trueba’s long-anticipated return to feature films (after a nine-year hiatus making music docus) overplays Dickensian elements while undercutting expected tension: Curiously for a film with a safecracking protag, the climactic caper lacks tension and doesn’t even show Nico at the safe. Victoria, a dancing gamine whose artfully smudged face is just one of the film’s many prettified elements, is pure fairy tale: The script milks the trauma of her parents’ “disappearance,” but the weak predictability of it all feels cynically calculated to provoke tears.
Much of the problem lies in the script, which tidily reduces people to caricatures (the ballet-school judges in particular are especially flimsy), spouting lines more appropriate to dime-store novels. An inner-voice dialogue between Nico and Teresa, a la “Strange Interlude,” is used once, ineffectually, and then discarded, and the overall cloying sweetness does not sit well with the darker themes, nor the unsubtle homophobia that discolors the whole picture.
Lensing is pretty and slick, featuring warm tones that make everyone and everything attractive. Santiago and the snow-covered mountains near the city are beautifully shot, though neither offers up many distinguishing features.