Film and TV

Home Life in Hell

World-weary skeptics might be tempted to pass on Icíar Bollaín's Take My Eyes the moment they learn its heroine is yet another victim of domestic violence. But that would be a mistake. The brilliant Spanish filmmaker who directed and co-wrote this harrowing look at a sick marriage has no interest in cheap effects or outraged preachment: Eyes is not some random movie of the week, nor is it calculated to round up the masses down at the multiplex, like J.Lo's dim-bulb 2002 vehicle, Enough. In fact, this may be the most potent, authentically disturbing film yet about the scourge of spousal abuse -- Ike and Tina notwithstanding.

Rest assured that the husband here is one awful piece of work. An insecure bullethead who measures out his days selling kitchen appliances in the quiet inland city of Toledo, Antonio (Luis Tosar) is the kind of control freak who hovers over his wife of nine years like a starved predator. He "embraces" her with crude, half-intended headlocks and demands to know her every thought. He even smokes with belligerent intensity, keeping a hard, pinched grip on his smoldering cigarette. The emergency-room records the beleaguered Pilar (lovely Laia Marull) keeps hidden in a dresser drawer speak for themselves (bruised kidney, temporary loss of vision, etc.), and the largely uncommunicative brute in her bed says plenty whenever he calls her "Shorty," an endearment whose domineering subtext he doesn't grasp.

But this is no cartoon. Rather than sketch the movie's relationship in stark black and white, Bollaín and co-writer Alicia Luna take pains to dramatize the bonds that unite even a deeply troubled couple -- the tug of fond memories and the force of hope, the ecstasies of sex and the comforts of habit. This marriage may be doomed -- even Pilar and Antonio's frightened little son (Nicol´s Fern´ndez Luna) seems to know that. But Pilar is willing to keep it on life support, especially when her explosive spouse signs up for group therapy and tries to woo her back with gifts and promises. She has fled the terror of her life at midnight, but she still has some faith in the dawn. Pilar's no fool, but romantic nostalgia is a tricky thing.

Can Antonio's fury be tamed, or is he incurable? As we watch his psychodrama unfold -- shot through with outlandish Latin machismo, Antonio's bewildered exchanges with his shrink (Sergi Calleja) are as rich as anything Tony Soprano and Dr. Melfi get into -- we get more telling views of Pilar via her family. Her sister (Candela Peña) is a realist who's picked up all the danger signals in Pilar's domestic plight, but the sisters' intrusive mother is a blinkered traditionalist who can't help defending her son-in-law, even after learning the reasons for the couple's separation. Mom's assessment: "He has his quirks, like anyone."

Pilar's progress is, of course, the more crucial matter. In the movie's atmosphere of foreboding, she tentatively declares independence by landing a job in a cathedral where a collection of great paintings hangs, then takes an art history course so she can move on as a museum guide. Soon, she's in thrall to Toledo's great Baroque master, El Greco: His distortions of the human body and his mystic reverberations speak directly to her (as do Titian's mythological flights of fancy), and we begin to sense in her a sudden broadening of horizon. In their courtship and early marriage, we have learned, Pilar and Antonio used to playfully "give" each other their various body parts. Predictably, he was always more demanding in the game than she; now, we see, the unhappy but spiritually aroused wife of a tyrant wants her eyes back. "I need to see myself," she laments. "I don't know who I am."

As in a well-made thriller, the emotional tension mounts as director Bollaín propels us toward one last crisis. We have no idea whether this desperate housewife will, say, douse her tormentor with gasoline and set his bed ablaze, or whether the tyrant will kill her in a rage. We cannot guess where the cycles of repulsion, forgiveness and fear roiling inside the heroine will come to ground, or what terrible twist will next erupt in her husband's brain waves. Like real life, Take My Eyes is fueled by dangerous ambiguity, and the best Pilar can hope for is the power of courage or some sort of miracle -- in an age that rarely produces either one. Beautifully acted and intelligently made, this is a film for thinking grownups.