Responsible for 1975’s “Furtive,” one of the key films of Spain’s political transition from dictatorship to democracy, vet Jose Luis Borau welds a thriller body onto a social-realist chassis in “Leo,” with mixed results. Superb perfs, especially from Borau favorite Iciar Bollain, a thought-provoking central idea and gold-plated professionalism are just about enough to keep the strangely untidy script from sinking. But given the subject matter, range of unsympathetic characters and general lack of glam appeal, pic’s commercial prospects seem slim outside standard Spanish territories and the fest circuit.
Story is set among the gray, grimy industrial estates on the outskirts of Madrid where feisty, sharp-tongued Leo (Bollain) earns a pittance gathering up old cardboard boxes. After she orders a meal she can’t pay for, security guard Salva (Javier Batanero), working alongside skeptical Paco (Luis Tosar), offers to pay for her.
Salva’s clumsy later attempts to seduce Leo are met with a frosty reception. But he finds her a job in a clothing factory where illegal immigrants work, run by Merche (Rosana Pastor, who, like Bollain, was in Ken Loach’s “Land and Freedom”).
Leo’s mother, Leonor (Charo Soriano), who is dying, asks to see wrestling coach Gabo (Russian thesp Valeri Jevlinski), with whom she once had a relationship, before she dies. The Russian refuses to go, and Leo, whose attitude toward Salva now changes, asks Salva to kill him. Hopelessly in love, Salva goes to the gym to check Gabo out, and finds he likes him — until, in Gabo’s flat, he finds a picture of a younger Leo sitting naked on the Russian’s lap.
Pic is schizophrenic — part realistic chronicle of underbelly life, part lowlife thriller — and neither side of its personality fully engages. So much is withheld from the viewer for the sake of suspense that simple confusion is sometimes the result.
On the plus side, pic bravely negotiates subjects — child abuse, illegal immigrants and the impoverished conditions in which they live and work — that most Spanish helmers wouldn’t touch with a barge pole. The bright-eyed, effervescent Bollain, who appears too infrequently in Spanish films, consolidates her rep as one of Spain’s finest actresses in a role tailor-written for her by Borau. Newcomer Batanero is entirely convincing in his decline from fresh-faced young lover to embittered agent of doom. Javier Gomez is also memorable as idiot boy Pipo, Gabo’s adoring assistant.
Pic saves its best till last: The final minutes, building up to a climax we don’t see, are a wordless, gracefully orchestrated sequence to the striking accompaniment of the Blue Danube Waltz.