Film: Agnosia ***
Release date: Out Now
Running time: 106 mins
Director: Eugenio Mira
Starring: Eduardo Noriega, Martina Gedeck, Bárbara Goenaga, Félix Gómez
Genre: Period Drama/Crime/Thriller
Reviewer: Daryl Wing
From the producers of two of the greatest scare-fests of recent years, Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) and The Orphanage (2007), written by Antonio Trashorras, who also co-penned Guillermo Del Toro’s spectacularly spooky The Devil’s Backbone (2001), and directed by Eugenio Mira, who brought us darkly comic The Birthday (2004), comes Agnosia, a Spanish period drama about love and, er, deceit? There must be some mistake, surely…
Joana (Bárbara Goenaga), a young woman suffering from the rare neuropsychological condition agnosia, which affects her sensual awareness, is preparing for her wedding to her father’s business associate, Carles (Eduardo Noriega).
Although Joana's eyes and ears function perfectly, her brain cannot interpret the stimuli she receives through them. When her father dies leaving behind a secret that only Joana knows, the formula to a telescopic lens hidden in her subconscious, she falls victim to a sinister plan to take advantage of her condition.
While her enemies try to extract the secret against her will, a handsome young man called Vincent (Felix Gomez), who previously worked for her father and shares an uncanny resemblance to Carles, is blackmailed into helping them, but his feelings toward Joana prove that perception isn’t always reality…
Eugenio Mira’s movie is wrought with persuasive period detail, lush landscapes, strong performances from an outstanding cast, but most surprising of all, razor-edged savagery and bursts of brutal imagery that make Agnosia almost as chilling as any of the movies already mentioned. It’s a genuinely refreshing surprise, even after the opening stampede when a horse is executed because they ran out of balloons. The plot veers into fantastical territory throughout, but Mira keeps it in check by allowing the characters to be as real as possible.
The opening act is quite bizarre, but all the better for it. Beginning many years earlier, when Joana is a child, the audience is able to revel in the film’s opulent surroundings reminiscent to countless fairytales as a group of wealthy gentlemen test out a new telescopic lens, shooting at balloons released by the whippersnapper. But then the horse gets one in the neck, a child collapses, the beginning of her suffering, and we are catapulted into a bleak, shadowy world controlled by villains and thugs. In turn, we are introduced to Vincent, ambushed and outnumbered, innocent yet insurgent, and the one man who can make Joana’s universe worth seeing again.
At its best, Agnosia is cruel and hard-hearted, with only Joana and her father decent enough to route for. The rest of the cast provide constant wickedness, whether it be Noriega’s reasonable turn as Carles, with his countless trips to the whorehouse because his future spouse isn’t giving him any (and he’s too polite to ask), or the mad doctor using his respectability to make lots of money, down to the evil business partner that never leaves loose ends, and even Vincent, a nice guy who doesn’t care if the girl he wants to smash is getting married.
Because of this there is bloodshed throughout. Not of the Sunday afternoon, Sikes murders Nancy variety, kindly gruesome even if it’s one of the most graphic, frightening scenes Dickens ever wrote, but seriously violent, and truly unexpected, whether it’s the death of a stallion, a servant, many servants, or the shy, unassuming Joana herself. A neat twist may propel us into act two, but the thrills witnessed here are not from the love triangle that slowly develops (although Joana’s conversation with Carles after spending a thunderous night with Vincent is comically tragic), but from the more believable world of corruption it’s set in.
Sadly, although it makes for convenient plot lubricant, the biggest stumbling block is the notion that Joana is unable to distinguish Carles from Vincent. And let’s face it, without this believability the film is going to fail, no matter what else happens. It’s certainly difficult trying to suspend disbelief. With her impaired vision, his looks (although more youthful) are convincing, yet his voice, and the hope we can believe in a relationship that suggests they have barely touched each other since childhood, doesn’t quite wash. It’s a shame, because although both Vincent and Carles are likeable, there really should only be one winner.
Let’s face it though, shoving a girl in a cocoon for three days and kidnapping her to retrieve the secret formula is a hard sell by anyone’s standards, as is the revelation during a pleasant period drama that it’s actually hidden in Joana’s subconscious, while the love story, despite its over-egged conclusion, is well executed and refreshingly realistic. Having witnessed the beauty that is Bárbara Goenaga, you would be lying if you didn’t understand either man’s plight. And so, with a barely noticeable soundtrack, which isn’t a bad thing, other than its clumsy hindrance to Vincent’s escape attempt, Agnosia fails to catch fire. To paraphrase Joana’s disappointment, “Last night, Agnosia, you seemed like someone else.”
As impressive as it looks, along with its surprising acts of brutality, Agnosia fails to convince because it can’t combine fairytale sweetness and quirky invention with realism where it really counts – a flawed but promising addition to Spanish cinema.