The first shot of the earth in Before the Fall (Tres días) is long and abstract.
The first shot of the earth in Before the Fall (Tres días) is long. Perched on a satellite in orbit, the camera is eerily still until... something hard and unseen slams into the satellite. As the frame jostles and the device clanks, chunks of it break off, floating clumsily into the endless surrounding space. Ominous despite and because it includes no persons and so, no panicky response, this abstract scene cuts to a metaphorical one, an extreme close-up of a human eye. Alejandro (Víctor Clavijo) blinks, awakened by a crow cawing loudly on his windowsill. The light is bright and hot, as opposite from the dark universe as might be imagined. As different as they are, both images -- whether far, far away or intensely close -- bode ill.
Ale can't know this yet. His day in the Andalucian town of Laguna begins much as it apparently always does: he makes his way into the kitchen where his mother Rosa (Mariana Cordero) is frying dough for breakfast. They exchange complaints, their voices weary and faces lined. Again, they can't know that this routine will soon be broken forever, when they learn the news: a meteor is headed toward earth and nothing can be done to stop it. A skritchy TV report reveals that recent global efforts to intercept the meteor "have failed tragically." This is what happens after Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck don't stop Armageddon.
As its title indicates, F. Javier Gutiérrez's movie -- available on IFC's Festival Direct Video On Demand starting 22 July -- follows Ale and his family during the three days they have left before impact. Beautifully shot by Miguel A Mora and smartly edited, the movie is less interested in pyrotechnic effects than provocative moral and psychological questions, beginning with what can be done with such devastating information. As the newscast suggests, authorities have not revealed what they've known for months for fear of causing panic -- the panic that erupts as soon as the UN Secretary General makes his announcement that all is lost.
This much is immediately clear, as Rosa makes her way along sidewalks crowded with frightened neighbors, packing up vehicles with meager belongings and heading out. They're in search of sanctuary -- either on vaguely defined "higher ground" or inside churches. Rosa's immediate concern, however, is not quite what you'd expect: Ale's older brother, a local legend of a policeman, years ago put away a child killer named Soro (Eduard Fernández). When she sees on television that prisons have erupted in riots, Rosa's face falls: the villain ("an animal") has sworn revenge, and so she knows he'll soon be on his way to kill her grandchildren.
As it happens, the kids are living in a farmhouse on the outskirts of town. Here, she discovers, they've lost radio and TV reception, and so haven’t learned of the imminent apocalypse. Having insisted that Ale come with her to his brother's place -- though Ale resents his brother and would rather not feel responsible for his kids -- Rosa enlists him in what he calls a "pack of lies," that their mother is returning fro a shopping trip, that the television signal is only temporarily disrupted, indeed, that their futures extend beyond 82 hours. His lanky frame looming, Ale asks why she didn’t' tell them the truth; Rosa has no good answer: "It wasn’t the time," she sighs. Ale's beside himself, hissing, "When will it be? When they're dead?"
It's a grim query, underlining that there's no way to prepare the children for their grisly fates -- whether at the hands of the relentless serial killer or the end of the world. Their expectations now look hopelessly trivial, as oldest sister Raquel (Ana de las Cuevas) waits for a date who won't make it ("He'll be sorry," she pouts when he doesn't show up) and cute little Clara (Elvira de Armiñán) tells her uncle that she wants to save the ice cream in the freezer for her birthday in eight days.
As the three days slip away, Ale faces one crisis after another, becoming increasingly invested in preserving his nieces and nephews' fragile fictions. To that end, he refuses to engage directly with Soro when he inevitably shows up, pretending to be a random traveler who's run out of gas but happens to have a lawn chair in his trunk -- all the better to park himself outside the farmhouse and observe his prey. It's not a little creepy that Soro goes along with Rosa's "pack of lies," not telling the kids about the meteor. He and Ale take on very different roles that look alike: Ale keeps a shotgun in plain view, suggesting he's the one prone to violence, while Soro pretends for little Nico (Juan Galván) and his older brother Emilio (Daniel Casadellà) that he's just an amiable stranger in search of companionship.
Because the film sets up its end in the beginning -- because that long view is ever present -- its emotional tensions are simultaneously too abstract and too real. It's a tension that, like the introductory difference between images too far and too close, can only be unresolved.