'The Cat Vanishes'

Playing with '40s-era Hitchcock as a cat would toy with a mouse, Argentine writer-director Carlos Sorin's "The Cat Vanishes" cleverly updates the likes of "Spellbound" and "Suspicion" with its slow-burning tale of a Buenos Aires woman (Beatriz Spelzini) whose fear of her psychologically recovering hubby (Luis Luque) gradually drives her as crazy as he was -- and maybe still is.

Playing with ’40s-era Hitchcock as a cat would toy with a mouse, Argentine writer-director Carlos Sorin’s “The Cat Vanishes” cleverly updates the likes of “Spellbound” and “Suspicion” with its slow-burning tale of a Buenos Aires woman (Beatriz Spelzini) whose fear of her psychologically recovering hubby (Luis Luque) gradually drives her as crazy as he was — and maybe still is. Subtly and acerbically funny, Sorin’s pic also works as a dead-serious study of marital mistrust and potentially murderous impulses. This “Cat” might not have nine lives at the international B.O., but fests far and wide will undoubtedly want to pounce.

Stylishly shot in widescreen, the film is named for the sudden disappearance of Donatello, the married couple’s pitch-black feline, who hisses at the husband and scratches his face before departing for places unknown. Seems Donatello may be the cat who knew too much, at least about Luis (Luque), a middle-aged university prof newly sprung from psychiatric lockup after having brutally assaulted a colleague whom he had believed to have stolen his research.

Suspicion evidently runs in the family. Initially thrilled about Luis’ return home, his wife, Beatriz (Spelzini), develops a sneaking sense that Luis’ previously diagnosed “psychomotor agitation with behavioral disorder” may not have been cured.

Give or take the vanishing cat, Sorin (“The Window”) rather brilliantly renders the sources of Beatriz’s mounting anxiety as falling somewhere between legitimately frightening and absurdly misconstrued. The pic twists its familiar setup by calling the wife’s sanity into question as much as the husband’s, even as it characterizes the threat of male violence as a pervasive fact of life for a woman. Will Beatriz ever be able to trust or forgive her husband again? And if she can’t, will Luis explode?

En route to a satisfying climax, Sorin has infectious fun teasing the viewer with the possibility of Luis’ malevolence, beginning with the very first shot of him as he’s released from the psycho ward looking roughed-up and surly. If curiosity didn’t kill the cat, Luis — an amateur chef who seems to relish the act of severing fish heads with oversized knives — might well have done the deed himself.

Tech credits are topnotch, with Julian Apezteguia’s increasingly shadowy widescreen cinematography a particular standout. Nicolas Sorin’s old-fashioned, string-based score plays up the pic’s enjoyably melodramatic elements, which include the director’s pre-film warning not to give away the ending.

The Cat Vanishes

Argentina

Production

A Bavaria Film Intl. presentation of a Guacamole Films, Patagonik production, with support of Incaa. (International sales: Bavaria Film Intl., Geiselgasteig, Germany.) Produced by Patricia Bustamante, Juan Pablo Galli, Juan Vera, Alejandro Cacetta. Directed, written by Carlos Sorin.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Julian Apezteguia; editor, Mohamed Rajid; music, Nicolas Sorin; art director, Margarita Jusid; costume designer, Ruth Fischerman; sound (Dolby Digital), Jose Luis Diaz; assistant director, Fabiana Tiscornia. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (City to City), Sept. 9, 2011. Running time: 89 MIN.

With

Luis Luque, Beatriz Spelzini, Maria Abadi, Norma Argentina, Damian Guitan, Javier Niklison, Hugo Sigman.

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