For his highly personal "Second Skin," Spanish writer-director Gerard Vera evokes the aura of classic Hollywood romantic melodrama to set off a contemporary love story. "Second Skin" features stellar performances from Javier Bardem, Oscar-nominated for last year's "Before Night Falls"; Jordi Molla, who played Johnny Depp's partner in crime in "Blow"; and Ariadna Gil, a vibrant presence in such top Spanish films as the Academy Award-winning "Belle Epoque."
Gil's Elena, a Madrid printmaker, picks up her young son at school and then her husband's suit at the cleaners on the way to her suburban home, only to have her son accidentally discover a packet of memos, including a hotel bill, in a suit pocket. Inevitably, they suggest infidelity to Elena, who is more hurt than shocked since the passion has been ebbing from her marriage to Molla's Alberto, an aeronautical engineer. What never occurs to her is that her rival is a man, Diego (Bardem), an orthopedic surgeon who treated Alberto for an arm injury. No wonder this mature and intelligent drama seems so perceptive and authentic: the openly gay Vera has drawn from his own experience in becoming involved with a married man. Alberto is a profoundly conflicted man as he struggles at first to lead a double life and then to go "straight" when he is at heart gay. He's used a life of lies--he hates his work, despite his success, and has followed his father's and grandfather's footsteps because it was expected of him. Alberto is in a deep state of denial, having internalized the homophobia of a culture that, after all, has contributed "machismo" to our vocabulary. When, in Diego's arms, Alberto says this is the happiest moment of his life, he's clearly telling the truth; once away from his lover, he is comfortable only living in the closet as part of a rigidly compartmentalized existence.
What's intriguing here is that Alberto is essentially self-centered, more concerned with protecting his image as a heterosexual than with the feelings of his wife and lover, who both adore him. Diego and Elena are more attractive and charismatic than Alberto, a man who elicits more pity than sympathy, yet Alberto undeniably can be charming. Indeed, as open, honest and essentially strong people, Diego and Elena may unconsciously sense a vulnerability in Alberto that draws them to him.
There's no easy way out for Alberto, for whom self-discovery is overwhelming rather than liberating. In the way in which "Second Skin" plays out, Vera pulls no punches, drawing selfless performances from his cast, which includes Cecilia Roth as Diego's wise, concerned colleague. Vera has created a provocative, absorbing drama that reveals the curse of a self-hatred instilled by rigid social mores.
Unrated: Times guidelines: mature themes, sex and nudity, some language.
A Menemsha Films release of a Lolafilms production. Director Gerard Vera. Producer Andres Vicente Gomez. Screenplay by Angeles Gonzalez; based on an idea by Vera. Cinematographer Julio Madurga. Editor Nicholas Wentworth. Music Roque Banos. Costumes Macarena Soto. Art director Ana Alvargonzalez. In Spanish, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.
Exclusively at the Nuart through Thursday, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 478-6379.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times