Mariano Barroso’s lengthy flirtation with noir comes to striking fruition with “Ants in the Mouth,” a brooding, intense and shrewdly-plotted thriller set in 1950s Havana in the tumultuous days just before Castro’s revolution. Featuring a beautifully-modulated central perf from Eduard Fernandez, gorgeous-looking pic contains enough depth and incident for a film twice its length, but its overall power is mitigated slightly by thesping that doesn’t rise above noir stereotypes. Pic looks set to do mainstream business in Spanish ling territories, with fest pickups a certainty also for one of Spanish cinema’s classier-looking recent offerings.
Thirtysomething former political activist Martin (Fernandez) is released from jail in right-wing 1950’s Spain and immediately heads for Cuba in search of his g.f. Julia (Ariadna Gil), who he believes escaped there with her uncle, Dalmau (Jose Luis Gomez), and the haul from a bank robbery. After he arrives, his enquiries lead him to the seedy Dalmau, now a tailor, who tells him Julia is dead.
Martin is desperate for cash and Dalmau offers him a job — aided by Despanier (Samuel Claxton), he is to kidnap local senator Freddy Navarro (Jorge Perugorria). Pic’s deliciously convoluted plot has twists up its sleeve which just about make up for moments of clumsiness in its construction.
Flashbacks are neatly edited in to give just the right background info, never overshadowing the main story. Dialogue shuttles between naturalistic and hard-boiled, with Fernandez (who worked with Barroso in 1999’s “Washington Wolves”) convincing as a born loser stoically enduring repeated humiliations. Thesp seizes the opportunity to consolidate his rep as one of Spain’s finer character actors.
But other thesps are not quite up to the mark. Though Perugorria, so often the good-natured layabout, is convincingly nasty here as the symbol of a decadent regime, and Gomez confirms himself as a spare, underrated talent in a limited role, Gil struggles to turn her femme fatale beauty into anything deeper.
Beneath the slick surface is the standard noir morality tale about betrayal and deceptive appearances, but the setting — a Cuba on the verge of revolution, run by a fat cat and thoroughly amoral political class — is the perfect one for such a message The script gets across the political complexities surrounding the period efficiently.
Dependable lenser Javier Aguirresarobe does typically first-class work to bring the teeming Cuban capital to life, while Onelio Larralde’s art direction pays valuable attention to detail, reviving the splendors of ’50s Havana from its faded present. Highly-polished vintage vehicles and sumptuous mansions abound.