Antonio Hernandez's "The City of No Limits" is a beautifully crafted, complex and absorbing family drama in which the past boomerangs upon the present as a clan's patriarch nears death. Last year this sleek, compelling film won well-deserved Goyas, Spain's Oscars, for Enrique Braso and Hernandez's original screenplay and for Geraldine Chaplin's performance in the supporting actress category. The film stars Leonardo Sbaraglia, with Fernando Fernan Gomez and Chaplin as his parents, heading a fine ensemble cast.
Sbaraglia's dashing Victor Martin is an astrophysicist in Argentina who has flown to Paris with his fiancee, Eileen (Leticia Bredice), to be with his father, Max, as he undergoes tests before consideration of high-risk surgery for a malignant tumor that has left him in a somewhat deranged state. Apparently a pharmaceuticals tycoon, Max still has lucid moments yet increasingly thinks he's back in the '50s and is desperate to complete a mysterious mission.
No one seems to be taking Max seriously except Victor, a man as humane and intelligent as he is charming, who wants only for his father to die in peace. But Max's mission of mercy swiftly plunges him into a tantalizing mystery whose solution proves elusive and that involves a complicated interplay of love, guilt, betrayal, sex and politics.
That's not all that's going on. Victor's mother, Marie, a brisk, elegant woman with a steely will, is eager for the sale of her husband's company to Dutch investors to be completed, which may or not have anything to do with her husband's state of mind. She has on her side her son Alberto (Alex Casanovas), whose beautiful wife, Carmen (Ana Fernandez), has long been in love with Victor and hopes to rekindle the spark. Marie's other son Luis (Roberto Alvarez) is pretty much preoccupied with his sexy mistress, Beatriz (Monica Estarreado), his children's former nanny, much to the outrage of his fiery estranged wife, Pilar (Adriana Ozores), who fears being cut out of the Martin fortune.
At times it is hard to follow Hernandez's switches back and forth between the swank Paris hotel where Max's family has gathered and Madrid, where everyone but Victor resides, yet Victor's convoluted foray into the past comes clearly into focus. That Hernandez keeps lots of things happening effectively suggests that life inexorably goes on: Children have birthday parties; people get caught up in their own concerns; even Victor has to take time to sort out his feelings for Carmen and Eileen.
Only Marie keeps a steady focus, but precisely on what or why becomes increasingly puzzling. The formidable Chaplin shows Marie to be firm and controlling yet always human. She is a woman of many facets, and Chaplin does not ask that Marie be liked but rather that she be understood by the time the film is over. Chaplin has been memorable in American, English and French films but over the years has become an icon of the Spanish cinema, and "The City of No Limits" offers her yet another distinctive characterization, quite different from any role she has played in the past.
Gomez has long been one of the glories of Spanish films, and he is tremendously affecting here. Sbaraglia is well matched with Gomez and Chaplin, and the three receive strong support all around, especially from Alfredo Alcon as the man who would seem to hold the key to the mystery. Somber yet not without flashes of humor, "The City of No Limits" unfolds with a steady, cumulative power to a climax of surprises within surprises.
'The City of No Limits'
MPAA rating: Unrated
Times guidelines: Complex adult themes, some sensuality
Fernando Fernan Gomez...Max
A Venevision International release of an Hispano- Argentine co-production: Iconica S.A. and Zebra Producciones (Spain) and Patagonik Film Group (Argentina). Director Antonio Hernandez. Producers/ executive producers Jose Nolla, Antonio Saura. Screenplay by Enrique Braso and Antonio Hernandez. Cinematographer Unax Mendia. Editors Patricia Enis, Javier Laffaille. Music Victor Reyes. Costumes Cristina Caspuenas, Laura Herrera. Art director Gabriel Carrascal. In Spanish, with English subtitles.
Exclusively at the Cecchi Gori Fine Arts, 8556 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 281-8223.