The ritual killings of an ancient pre-Incan culture are echoed in the murders committed in a small town in modern-day Peru in Francisco J. Lombardi’s “Under the Skin.” Weighing the price to be paid for violence against the rewards to be gained, this psychological crime drama is reasonably taut and engrossing, despite two lackluster leads and a script with plenty of ideas but too few surprises. Spanish-language territories nonetheless should respond well.
The discovery of the severed heads of young men with their eyes gouged out in the Peruvian dust-bowl town of Palle leads young police captain Percy (Jose Luis Ruiz Barahona) to the local museum, where he learns of the barbaric practices of the Moche civilization that inhabited the same region centuries earlier. The investigation brings him into contact with museum curator Catalino Pinto (Gianfranco Brero), an expert on the ancient culture, and with the town’s new pathologist, Marina (Ana Risueno).
As Pinto’s guilt becomes increasingly apparent, mild-mannered Percy’s passions come to the fore, aroused by his desire for Marina. Arrested on suspicion of murder, Pinto hangs himself in his cell, but not before awakening the cop’s awareness of his own dark side. Percy hides the curator’s body, making it look like the murderer escaped. When Marina backs off from him, giving her favors instead to the mayor’s womanizing son Gino (Diego Bertie), the cop quickly overcomes his aversion to violent crime. With the killer supposedly still at large, calmly and rationally Percy commits murder to secure his future happiness.
While it broaches interesting questions about justice and the nature of crime as obsession or necessity, the script by director Lombardi and regular collaborator Augusto Cabada fails to develop these thoughts into more than an insubstantial subtext to an involving but fairly standard drama on the killer instinct. Similarly, the link with violent traditions in ancient Peruvian art and culture is tenuously developed.
Contributions by Ruiz Barahona and Risueno are drab, with the former coming across as particularly wooden. Considerably better is Bertie, who played the lead in Lombardi’s last feature, “Sin Compasion.” His cocksure young Gino, boasting about his many conquests and amusingly expounding on what makes a whore a whore, is a real live wire and by far the most interesting character onscreen.
Lombardi’s polished work won him best director prize at San Sebastian. Technical backup is sturdy all round, with composer Bingen Medizabal’s dark strings effectively heightening the mood.