A riveting, well-packaged political thriller, based on a real-life infiltrator into Basque terrorist group ETA during the ’70s, “The Wolf” reps one of Spanish cinema’s most successful pics on this volatile subject. Carefully welding research to nicely-worked thriller motifs and a mesmerizing, brooding performance from Eduardo Noriega, pic provides a glimpse into the inner workings of an organization whose influence over Spanish life is still tragically strong. B.O. since early November release has been tops, and pic’s thriller base should open it up to the offshore arthouse circuit as well.
Down-on-his-luck Txema (Noriega), married to Carmentxu (Silvia Abascal), is friends with several members of ETA, including ideologue Asier (a bearded Jorge Sanz, looking somewhat awkward) and Arrieta (Aitor Mazo). When cop Pantxo (Santiago Ramos) approaches Txema and asks him to infiltrate the group, Txema is uncertain until secret service agent Ricardo (Jose Coronado) writes him a fat check and turns him into The Wolf.
At a wedding, Txema falls for Amaia (Melanie Doutey), who tells Txema the kind of insider information Ricardo wants to hear. Tension mounts as Txema and Amaia carry arms across the French border, get involved in a kidnapping and start planting bombs.
As the stakes rise, Txema offers his services to hardliner Nelson (Patrick Bruel), who is now Ricardo’s target. Amaia, seduced by Nelson’s deadly charisma, starts to fall for him, and Txema now realizes his new life has brought him more than he bargained for. Things build to a superbly staged 10-minute shoot-out, after which, despite multiple twists, pic sheds some of its tension.
Balancing thriller, political and human elements, pic plays fast and loose with history in the name of its tautly-told plot, but captures the complicated dynamics of a ’70s Spain on the cusp of change. It’s especially convincing in regard to the infighting in both the ETA and the state, and the general climate of paranoia both generate.
Noriega delivers a career-best perf as Txema, evoking a man whose edgy self-control grows in proportion to his increasing awareness that he’s in over his head. Coronado is always watchable, though his portrait of Ricardo succumbs to some bad-guy cliches.
Visuals are a little too heavy with hazy, smoke-filled rooms, and occasional use of slo-mo adds little dramatically. Music is period rock, and often heavy-handedly employed: Using Slade’s “Coz I Love You” as background to some hot-blooded passion is an especially risky maneuver. Period footage is neatly incorporated.