‘Tesis’ Hits All the Points on the Standard Suspense Curve

Alejandro Amenábar’s suspense-drama Tesis is a fairly predictable, American-influenced thriller, but its stellar performances, particularly from Ana Torrent, are all aces.

Alejandro Amenábar’s Tesis marked the director’s first official foray into film, revealing him to be one of Europe’s most interesting and provocative directors. By today’s standards, Tesis doesn’t really stand apart as a wildly unique exploit into suspense-drama, but it’s a solid film that still holds up as a fine example of an overseas thriller with crossover potential.

Released in 1996, Tesis was a sizable hit in Spain, earning six coveted Goya awards (Spain’s equivalent of the Oscar) and kickstarting the career of actor Eduardo Noriega — “the Spanish Brad Pitt” — who would go on to become a critic’s darling and a pin-up in the years to follow. The film is also notable for featuring a lead performance by Ana Torrent, best remembered as the curious, shy eight-year-old schoolgirl from The Spirit of the Beehive (1973), a masterpiece of Spanish cinema.

Tesis’ story deals with a young college student writing a thesis on the increasing violence in the media. In the course of her research, Angela (Torrent) discovers a number of videotapes which contain gruesome acts of violence. With the help of fellow student Chema (Fele Martínez), a socially awkward gore-hound who has a staggering collection of gore-films and porn, Angela learns that a videotape she swiped from her college’s film collection (covertly stashed in an underground passageway in the audio-visual unit) is, in fact, a snuff film. The tape contains footage of a brutal murder, in which a woman is viciously beaten before she is dismembered. Chema recognizes the woman from the footage as a young student from their college who went missing a few years earlier. Angela would rather forget the whole incident and just focus on her thesis; she’s not up for being targeted by a group of murderous sadists. But Chema insists that they dig further, pulling Angela deeper into the dangerous underworld of snuff films. Before long, the two students find themselves the target of those responsible for producing the tapes.

Amenábar doesn’t complicate the script too much in the way of twists and turns, keeping things fairly simple, focusing on the drama between his characters instead. Watching Tesis, one can clearly see the influence of the American thriller. This isn’t an arty Euro-thriller that forsakes action in favour of a deeply emotional study on the human psyche. This is a film that hits every point on the standard suspense curve, with a triggering incident, a conflict, rising action, a climax, and finally a resolution. What Amenábar manages to do extremely well is make a two-hour film feel like it’s moving along at half the time. The action rarely lags and there is always new and interesting information being fed to the viewer to sustain the interest. If the resolution seems a little pat, it’s only because there really aren’t a lot of red herrings to throw about. The film essentially consists of four key characters, making it fairly easy for the audience to narrow down the possibilities for who the murderer is.

If anything, this film belongs to the highly overlooked and underappreciated Ana Torrent. It’s hard to imagine the actress as an adult, after having made such an indelible impression in The Spirit of the Beehive as a naïve and innocent child. Here, Torrent offers her character a taut balance between an affecting vulnerability and a resolute sense of self and she nails down this balance with aplomb and poise. Most of the emotional reading can be found in Torrent’s dark and penetrating eyes, always searching and assessing the surrounding drama with skepticism and concern.

Bayview Entertainment has done a really wonderful job with its Blu-ray release; colours show a smooth and even tone with no fading or smearing. On older DVD copies, the print looked fairly damaged and rather soft. Here, on Blu-ray, the image has been cleaned up considerably, revealing finer details that had been once obscured on previous formats. The sound comes through nicely; here it is of note that the score earned the film one of its six winning Goyas. The film is Spanish-language with optional English subtitles.

Extras include a fairly lengthy interview with director Amenábar, who discusses his life in film, starting from his early days as a film student to his first feature, Tesis. Also included is a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the film, with archival footage of rehearsals and candid interviews with the stars. A storyboard for some of the scenes in the film and a trailer round out the supplements. If you are already a fan of the film, you’ll have a nice set of in-depth extras to keep you further entertained.

Tesis won’t exactly knock the socks off of viewers; it’s a fairly predictable thriller with an easy-to-guess ending. However, it is exceptionally acted, with all actors delivering solid performances and fully submitting to the demands of some of the more arduous action sequences. Once again, Torrent must be noted here, as many of her films are not available outside of Europe. She is a beguiling presence in cinema and it is to Bayview Entertainment’s credit for making available one of her best performances in film in her years as an adult.

RATING 7 / 10