Unsettling elements of childhood meet the existential unease of the adult world in Paz Fabrega's fascinating but uneven debut, "Cold Water of the Sea."

Unsettling elements of childhood meet the existential unease of the adult world in Paz Fabrega’s fascinating but uneven debut, “Cold Water of the Sea.” Handsomely lensed using natural light and darkness, pic is strongest when focusing on the fantastical imagination of a little girl; the parallel story of a young woman going through a strangely undefined crisis is less successful. Still, Fabrega shows a marked talent and a fresh new voice able to achieve impressive results on a small budget. Rotterdam’s Tiger award should draw attention from fest programmers.

Thanks to the compellingly atmospheric script, and helped by the fact that Costa Rica’s film industry has been slow to emerge, all the expected film funds boarded this multinational project, including Hubert Bals, Torino Filmlab, Binger Institute and Groupama Gan. Film reveals a singular, unified vision that doesn’t appear to have been influenced by too many outside voices.

A family is vacationing at a campsite on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast. Fabrega evokes the beauty and mystery of the beach at night, where the unexpected emerges from darkness: Horseback riders holding lamps suddenly pass 7-year-old Karina (Montserrat Fernandez) and head back into the shadows.

The child wanders away from her family and is found asleep by Mariana (Lil Quesada Morua) and her fiance, Rodrigo (Luis Carlos Bogantes). When she’s awakened, Karina tells Mariana that her parents are dead, and that her uncle kisses her using his tongue.

But viewers already know Karina’s parents and three brothers are very much alive. The shockingly detailed piece of information acts as a virus, infecting audience perceptions even when everything says Karina is lying.

Next morning, Karina finds her way back to her anxious parents (Freddy Chavarria, Annette Villalobos), and Mariana and Rodrigo, a well-educated, middle-class couple on vacation, check into a hotel. After a nap, Karina wakes up soaked in sweat, and throughout the rest of the film she’s listless — prey to something either physical or psychosomatic that threatens to destroy her mental equilibrium.

Helmer Fabrega withholds any clarifying sequences, and leaves viewers caught off balance. Strategy works especially well in scenes with Karina, which capture the unsettling qualities of a child’s mind, but Mariana’s story demands something more to better understand what she’s going through.

Film’s imagery constantly reinforces both the comforts of the elements (water, earth, fire) and the disquieting face of nature — as when there’s an invasion of water snakes like serpents in Eden. By shooting throughout the day and night, Fabrega furthers the feeling of disorientation, upending daily rhythms that have already been cut loose because the family is on vacation. D.p. Maria Secco (“Gasoline”) frequently keeps her camera at the protags’ level.

Cold Water of the Sea

Costa Rica-France-Spain-Netherlands-Mexico

Production

A Temporal Films (Costa Rica)/Les Films du Requin (France)/Tic Tac Producciones (Spain)/Isabella Films (Netherlands)/Pimienta Films (Mexico) production, in association with Backup Films. (International sales: Films Boutique, Berlin.) Produced by Jean des Forets, Paz Fabrega. Co-producers, Fernanda Del Nido, Els Vandevorst, Nicolas Celis. Directed, written by Paz Fabrega.

Crew

Camera (color), Maria Secco; editor, Nathalie Alonso Casale; production designers, Marielos Cordero, Dominique Ratton Perez; sound (DTS stereo), Severin Favriau, Fernando Soldevilla, Deborah Stauffer, Diego S. Staub; associate producers, Cyriac Auriol, Max Valverde. Reviewed at Rotterdam Film Festival (competing), Jan. 31, 2010. (Also in Berlin Film Festival -- market.) Running time: 80 MIN.

With

Montserrat Fernandez, Lil Quesada Morua, Freddy Chavarria, Annette Villalobos, Luis Carlos Bogantes.

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