The shadow of “The Turn of the Screw” hangs heavy over Hector Carre’s “The Promise,” an offbeat, mostly effective study of madness that combines a psychological study, a supernatural yarn and a tale of domestic violence to surprisingly rounded effect. Built around a multifaceted central perf by Carmen Maura, as a mentally disturbed woman embarking on a new life, pic’s ambition leads it into moments of uncertainty, and even though the horror-meter never really budges, film leaves a memorably atmospheric aftertaste. Pic could garner fest exposure, with Maura’s rep likely to provoke interest from selected Euro territories.
Intensely religious Gregoria (Maura) has spent a lifetime suffering at the hands of her monstrous hubby, Roberto (Juan Margallo). One day, Amable (Chete Lera) falls off a ladder into her path and extols the virtues of his village in the north of Spain before dying. (This very oddball scene, like other similarly surreal ones, may only be imagined by the troubled Gregoria.) Gregoria returns home, apparently stabs Roberto to death, and heads north to Amable’s village.
On arrival, Gregoria saves sad-faced problem child Daniel (Santiago Baron) from being run over and, after protests from Daniel’s misogynistic lawyer father, Leandro (Evaristo Calvo), is invited by his highly-strung wife, Dorita (Ana Fernandez), to be the boy’s nanny. Gregoria, now free to call herself “Celia” as she’s always wished, invents a history for herself.
Most of the rest of the action occurs in the family’s sumptuous, creepy country home, fitted out with appropriate nooks, crannies and shadows. When the family goes away, Celia decides it’s time to save Daniel, with whom she has developed a close relationship, from future misery at the hands of his parents.
Atmospherics are superb, though there are occasionally shocko moments that come straight from the Horror 101 manual and the final helter-skelter 15 minutes are clumsy. Maura keeps the incredible goings-on rooted in reality as the dumpy, twitchy Gregoria. Child thesp Baron is a spot-on foil, but other perfs are either merely efficient or overblown (such as Calvo). Tech credits are fine, particularly the texture-rich lensing by Juan Carlos Gomez of the fabulous Galician coastline.