Alejandro Amenábar’s feature debut Tesis (Thesis) is one of a number of films made at the tail end of the last millennium exploring our relationship with, and the effects of, on-screen violence (Funny Games, Existenz, I Stand Alone, etc). However, after international box office success, multiple awards and a limited VHS release on Tartan video, the film disappeared from circulation – and was never given a DVD release in the UK. In my mind it took on the stature of one of those video nasties that the narrative revolves around – a tantalising item that I desperately wanted to see, but could never get hold of. So this screening was an extremely exciting addition to the ‘Once Upon A Time In Spain’ strand at the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

The story focusses on Angela, a student in Madrid whose thesis into the nature of “audio visual violence” uncovers a nefarious snuff movie ring hidden within the university. Angela is played by Ana Torrent – the doe-eyed child star of Victor Erice’s legendary 1973 drama Spirit of the Beehive. And Amenábar really seems to be capitalising on Torrent’s cinematic legacy. In so many ways the character of ‘Angela’ is a grown-up version of her role in Erice’s masterpiece – now grown up and moved to the city, she’s still equally fascinated and repulsed by the things that terrify her.

The real star of the movie, however, is Amenábar’s script. It’s a taught, tactile ride – keeping you guessing right to the very end scene as to who is helping Angela, and who is out to get her. Amenábar clearly understands when to use humour as a release of tension. He plays with the idea that the movie discusses on-screen violence, but refuses to show it – unless mediated through the saturated haze of a TV screen, or shown through Ana’s fingers as she shields herself from the horrors but refuses to look away.

The film has all the elements of a mid-80s giallo – high key lighting, dramatic piano-led score, and a murder mystery plot that constantly wrong foots you. It’s therefore very telling that the one element Amenábar leaves out is the overtly stylised murder sequences. It’s a very cine-literate move, and easy to see how he would go on to make such a great and varied body
of work as The Others, Open Your Eyes and The Sea Inside.