Long-established art-house director Jaime Rosales set out to make his most accessible feature with “Petra,” a film about lies and self-discovery that indeed could well be his most popular work to date. It looks gorgeous, boasting sterling performances and an initially intriguing storyline that Rosales shuffles in an occasionally non-linear manner, not so far removed from such previous experimentations as “The Dream and the Silence.” There’s also Hélène Louvart’s elegantly fluid camerawork, gliding across and through spaces, always aware that worlds exist just outside the frame. But what begins as a psychologically and visually lush exploration of a woman’s quest to establish her paternity turns around the half-way mark into an overburdened plot set off by those constant panning shots which themselves become too rich for digestion. The disappointment is inescapable given the excitement of the first part, yet there’s enough to chew on, and indeed, “Petra” may well be Rosales’ leap into the less rarefied areas of art-house distribution.
Opening with chapter 2 — each section is delineated by chapter headings on a black screen — might feel disconcerting, but the non-random jumbling of certain parts of the narrative give concrete form to an understanding of the interplay between past and present. Even without all the background information, however, we still know what’s going on, largely because superb actors like Bárbara Lennie and Marisa Paredes are masters at non-verbally incarnating figures of great depth. At the start, Petra (Lennie) arrives at the home of world-renowned sculptor Jaume Navarro (Joan Botey) for an artist’s residency. The great man isn’t there, but she’s warmly greeted by housekeeper Teresa (Carme Pla) and then sized up by his wife, Marisa (Paredes), who coolly informs Petra that if she came to further her quest for truth in art, she’s in the wrong place.
Petra strikes up a friendship with Lucas (Alex Brendemühl), Jaume and Marisa’s photographer son who lives in the shadow of his famed father. Once introduced, it’s easy to see why the filial relationship is fraught: Jaume is one of the more spectacularly narcissistic artists seen on screen for some time, his random cruelties tossed off with a complete lack of concern for their consequences. Petra’s unwillingness to be intimate with Lucas at first seems odd given unmistakable chemistry, but then Rosales jumps back to chapter 1, when Petra’s mother Julia, (Petra Martínez), is dying but still refuses to reveal the identity of her daughter’s biological father. The pieces quickly fall into place: Petra believes Jaume is her father, so a romantic relationship with her potential half-brother Lucas is of course off limits.
When she confronts Jaume after he tells Petra that her paintings are weak and have no chance of success, he admits he knew Julia but convincingly tells her they met only after Petra was born. The news liberates her to both leave the stifling environs of the Navarro establishment and to begin a relationship with Lucas, which leads to a more fulfilling, grounded life. However, truths are not quite so evident — at least, not to the characters, though audiences will have likely worked things out sooner.
There’s a certain irony, surely not lost on Rosales, that Jaume’s interests lie in success rather than integrity, given the director’s statement that he’s aiming for broader appeal than his previous works through a vehicle that itself is all about honesty and self-realization. That appeal is certainly there from the very start, when the camera coyly remains a room away from the characters before slowly entering into the same space. Each figure has his or her own fascination, and all of them exude an intelligence that makes them even more absorbing. Yet at a certain point, the plot twists feel gratuitous, and Rosales’ enduring interest in the subtleties of family dynamics veers toward themes found in Greek tragedy, without their bald immediacy.
Sharply drawn individual characters and well-written dialogue never flag, and Jaume’s lines are especially well-done in their utter brutality, notwithstanding the by-now common figure of the vicious artist-genius. But what really keeps things together are the outstanding performances, starting with the always excellent Lennie and her aura of adult maturity dogged by uncertainty. And then there’s Paredes in a smaller role that nonetheless imprints itself on the entire film: Is there any other actress so skilled at the expressivity of subtle facial movements? Though still strong, Marisa is emptied of emotion thanks to a lifetime in the crosshairs of a malicious husband; her self-awareness is as painful as her frigidity is unforgiving, yet Paredes finds a note of understanding that allows for unexpected sympathy.
During the first half, Louvart’s camera enchants with each deliberate glide, the movement a testimony to the impermanence of things, most of all the bonds between people. In addition, the natural beauty of the area around Girona, where Jaume’s house is set, adds a further level of attraction, yet why pan to the landscape out a window when Marisa tells Petra a crucial piece of news? Long before then, the pleasures of those pans have waned, with each drifting movement reminiscent of a moving walkway frustratingly pulling away just when we want to hold on to something. It’s hard to imagine what Rosales was hoping to effect with the church-like chanting of Danish composer Kristian Selin Eidnes Andersen’s all-too frequent a cappella vocal harmonies.