It’s not just in its star, Ricardo Darín, that Argentinian director Santiago Mitre’s Un Certain Regard title “The Summit” seems built to evoke his countryman Juan José Campanella’s Oscar-winning “The Secret in their Eyes.” There is a similar enveloping silkiness to the filmmaking, which purrs along like a prowling, predatory animal, and a similar sense of place and noirish atmosphere. But the point of massive divergence for these two well-made genre thrillers is in how they end. “Eyes” closed with a series of high-wire revelations, each more enjoyably outlandish than the last; “The Summit” opts for a mid-stride ambiguity that leaves us scrambling to piece together our own resolution.
In fact, it’s possible that Mitre’s consummate craft, which has been building across his directorial career and culminated prior to this with his 2015 Critics’ Week prizewinner “Paulina,” works against him here. Elevated by strong performances from a who’s-who of engrossingly watchable Latin American talent, subplots that are perhaps supposed to be mere red herrings or background texture are lent the gravitas and weight of full-blooded storylines. If this were the opening feature-length episode of a prestige television series, this multi-stranded approach would be just the ticket to have us tuning back in next week. But a standalone film, even one as mountain-bound as this one, shouldn’t end on a cliffhanger.
The personal is political, and vice versa, for Hernán Blanco (Darín), the new Argentinian president who got elected as an intriguing mix of dark horse candidate and blank-slate everyman. (Even his surname hints at his tabula rasa quality.) But his first major test as a world leader approaches: a summit, hosted by the Chilean premier (Paulina García in a too-small role) to establish a regional South American oil agreement in the mold of OPEC. Not only this, but the ex-husband of his troubled daughter Marina (Mitre muse Dolores Fonzi) is blackmailing his administration with allegations of wrongdoing in the lead-up to his surprise election victory.
Worried about her state of mind, Blanco insists that Marina join him at the hotel in the Andes where this high-level meeting of nations, in which regional alliances and rivalries play a significant role, is taking place. Once there, she deteriorates further, prompting Blanco to bring in a headshrinker — played by Pablo Larraín regular Alfredo Castro — under whose hypnotherapy Marina starts to recover troubling, possibly false memories about her father’s role in a mysterious death. And so the stage is set for Blanco’s political maneuverings to collide with this psychological intrigue.
Darín manages to preserve Blanco’s essential unknowability very well, leaving the question of his guilt or innocence in this long-past crime unanswered, while the nature of his political agenda, co-spearheaded by shady political svengali Castex (Gerardo Romano) remains similarly ambiguous. Christian Slater provides a welcome cameo as an American diplomat sent in high secrecy to negotiate the U.S.’ involvement in the oil deal, and to add a further unnecessary layer, Elena Anaya also appears as a journalist profiling the new president. All this plotting gives Mitre ample opportunity to indulge in Hitchcockian flourishes, particularly in the hypnosis-induced revelations from Marina, and the knottily ambivalent two-hander conversations that happen in cable cars and on misty mountainsides.
As an arthouse film, “The Summit” has too many genre trappings; as a genre film, especially one in the thriller category which relies on a solid dismount, it doesn’t satisfy. And there’s something practically old-school about its atmosphere of political paranoia: At a time when vulgar ineptitude is no barrier to becoming a wealthy nation’s democratically elected leader, it’s almost comforting to believe that high-level meetings are right now being conducted in discreet mountain retreats between smooth, calculating, manipulative people. Even if they’re evil, at least they’re intelligent, and their tailoring is impeccable.
There’s no denying the film’s sombre filmmaking smarts: The pivotal vote is filmed like a high-stakes poker game, Alberto Iglesias’ score is typically understated but appropriate, while Javier Juliá’s restrained camerawork has a sharkskin sheen. It’s just a shame that, for all this surface slickness, Mitre and co-writer Mariano Llinás can’t find a more conclusive finale. Instead we scale “The Summit” only to discover we’re scarcely halfway up and there’s another, higher peak beyond.