Surveillance in the name of maintaining order at Argentina’s top secondary school collapses into a psychosexual quagmire in Diego Lerman’s “The Invisible Eye,” whose engrossing first half succumbs to obvious dramatic turns. A far cry aesthetically from Lerman’s landmark indie debut “Tan de repente,” this adaptation of Martin Kohan’s prize-winning 2006 novel “Moral Sciences” depicts the school as a microcosm of a nation enduring a failing military dictatorship in 1982. Classy production values and a knockout lead perf by Julieta Zylberberg will boost worldwide theatrical prospects after solid fest dates.
Lerman has not been a director prone to political statements and themes, and among his peers, he’s one of the least likely to make a film that explicitly and stylistically recalls 1980s Argentine cinema. Yet both elements are at play in his new film, crafted around the hardly original notion that the poisonous oppression of a regime at war with “subversion” fosters nothing but monsters and repressed souls. Pic is generally faithful to Kohan’s book, with a few narrative and character alterations; what’s surprising in the end about “The Invisible Eye” is how on-the-nose its political and psychological talking points actually are.
Set in March 1982, when the 6-year-old junta is growing decrepit and willing to launch an absurd war with the U.K. over the Falkland Islands, pic is told exclusively from the p.o.v. of Colegio Nacional supervisor Marita (Zylberberg), who handles her charges with military-style propriety. She’s as much a soldier of the state as the students, however, and proves willing to follow the orders of her boss, Mr. Biasutto (Osmar Nunez), who preaches an ideology that apes the dictatorship’s.
The script by Lerman and Maria Meira arguably sets up its characters and issues too bluntly to begin with, but this problem is offset by the involving manner in which Lerman and his skilled editor Alberto Ponce create the intensity of a mystery-suspense movie — a mood enhanced by Jose Villalobos’ minimally deployed score. As Zylberberg’s Marita delves into her new assignment — keeping a close watch on the students for any signs of subversion — the actor expertly uses facial expressions and eye movements to describe her inner character.
Marita’s daily routines define her repressed loneliness: leading the students about in line formation, conducting dress inspections, filing her nails on the subway commute back home and finally having dinner with her ailing mother Elvira (Gaby Ferrero) and seamstress grandmother Adela (Marta Lubos). Marita is still a virgin at 23, and many of her problems come down to the simple fact that she needs to get laid. A snide comment at a party that her skin looks like a virgin’s compels her to try moisturizer in the next scene (and later, some makeup), gestures underscoring her pathetic notions of personal freedom.
Unfortunately, after Marita’s spying tactics go too far — and once Biasutto takes his paternal concern for Marita past professional boundaries — the dramatic course of the story becomes all too easy to anticipate. Sexual violence in the school is too cleanly charted with incendiary anti-regime protests (unseen, but audible) on the streets surrounding the school, diffusing the impact of what might have been a forceful fable.
Nunez is saddled with the burden of playing the all-too-evident stand-in for the dictators, but doesn’t bring necessary nuance to the heavy-handedness. Alvaro Gutierrez’s muted color palette mirrors Marita’s life, with all production elements classically realized. The filmmakers were prevented from filming in the actual Colegio Nacional, but the substitute school locales are well captured for their ultra-establishment qualities.