Nationalism, xenophobia and racist violence are examined within the context of a disintegrating family in Spanish newcomer Carlos Molinero’s brutal urban drama “Savages.” Despite oversubscribing to the vogue for convulsive hand-held camerawork, this gritty, gripping tale of fanatical hatred in coastal Valencia — a bustling port for clandestine North African immigration — is stylishly directed and convincingly performed by a strong cast. Theatrical prospects in Spanish-language territories appear solid, along with wider fest exposure, particularly in new-talent forums.
Middle-aged nurse Berta (Marisa Paredes) lives alone with her late sister’s three rebellious adolescent kids but continues to nurture hope of romance. More jaded and prone to heavy boozing but equally open to a relationship, Eduardo (Imanol Arias) is a detective who starts dating Berta after meeting her at the hospital.
Her niece Lucia (Maria Isasi) loves unscrupulous club owner Fausto (Jose Luis Alcobendas), who smuggles immigrants into Europe on the side. Berta’s nephews, Guillermo (Roger Casamajor) and Raul (Alberto Ferreiro), are active members of the local neo-Nazi chapter.
When Eduardo’s investigation of the near-fatal beating of a Senegalese immigrant (Emilio Buale) points to Berta’s nephews, she refuses at first to face the truth. Conflict arises between the siblings through Lucia’s knowledge of her brothers’ involvement.
While the first-time director is a little overzealous in showcasing his technical bravura, Molinero gives the tough drama plenty of texture via syncopated editing, a wild, agitated shooting style, fragmented images and effective distortion of both sound and visuals during the more explosive scenes. The climactic stretch becomes slightly muddy plotwise, but the drama is intelligently placed within a contemporary social context via end-credit interviews with immigrants talking direct-to-camera about both veiled and blatant forms of racism, conditions and attitudes in Europe.
Paredes (best known for roles in Pedro Almodovar’s films) arguably looks a touch too glamorous to be a nurse of humble means, and Arias, perhaps too tanned and healthily handsome to be a hard-living cop with liver damage. But both actors — reportedly instrumental in financing the pic — deftly balance a certain weary complacency with visible longing for a more fulfilling emotional life. Scenes in which Berta clashes with her nephews have lots of volatile energy and an element of menace, while the pairing of Paredes with real-life daughter Isasi generates more low-key results.