The title of the 1996 Spanish thriller Tesis (“Thesis”) refers to the project that drives the film, a research paper on media violence by a graduate student who’s simultaneously repulsed and seduced by the topic. But it could apply just as much to the film itself, a precocious debut feature by 23-year-old writer-director Alejandro Amenábar, who later made a name for himself with smart, stylish genre revampings like 1997’s Open Your Eyes (remade as Vanilla Sky) and 2001’s The Others. For better or worse, Tesis feels very much like the product of a movie-crazed film-school grad who strives for a profound statement on society’s sick obsession with violence, but succeeds more at aping Hitchcock (via Brian De Palma), Dario Argento, and other genre maestros. It’s a critique of exploitation that—ironically, and perhaps inevitably—gratifies its audience’s bloodlust and opens up Spanish cinema to the Hollywood commercialization it explicitly decries.
Amenábar’s cinephilia is immediately plain in the casting: Ana Torrent, who played the little girl in 1973’s Spirit Of The Beehive—easily one of Spain’s key cinematic benchmarks—stars as the grad student working on the thesis in question. Though she intends to cluck her tongue at our addiction to violent images, Torrent can’t keep herself from plumbing the extremes, any more than she can keep from rubber-necking at a subway accident in the opening sequence. For help on her thesis, she turns to Fele Martínez, a scraggy outcast who boasts a formidable collection of porn and gore, including some Faces Of Death-style compilation videos. When the two uncover what appears to be a real-life snuff film, depicting the torture and death of a missing university student, Torrent’s research project turns into a full-on investigation. The prime suspect: Eduardo Noriega, a handsome student who frightens and attracts Torrent in equal measure.
In spite of all the lip service given to our relationship to media violence, Amenábar ultimately doesn’t seem as committed to the issue as he pretends to be; he all but loses the theme once the thriller plotting kicks in. (Then he regains it, clumsily, in a coda that indicts the media and the audience.) But Amenábar dodges the moral hysteria and hypocritical prurience that infected Joel Schumacher’s 8mm three years later, and his cinephilia suffuses the film in mostly exciting ways. As a whodunit, Tesis is strictly paint-by-numbers, but Amenábar plays it to the hilt, using offscreen space, moody lighting, video trickery, and even his own score (with Mariano Marín) to heighten the impact. The kid loves his toys; maturity came later.
Key features: A surprisingly in-depth 25-minute making-of featurette joins a few deleted scenes and a selection of Amenábar’s storyboards.