Icíar Bollaín’s searing Spanish drama “Take My Eyes” does what few films before it have managed: It depicts domestic violence without making the abuser a one-dimensional monster and without becoming a suspense-thriller.
Reflect a moment on other films that have dealt with this topic. The elements are usually sensationalized: The husband isn’t just angry that his wife has left him; he hunts her down, and she generally winds up being obligated to kill him in self-defense. It is usually unclear what she ever saw in him to begin with, and there seems to be nothing drawing her to him now. He is a tyrant, an ogre, often an adulterer, and when she insists she loves him, we can’t for the life of us imagine why.
Now consider “Take My Eyes,” which brings everything back to reality. Antonio (Luis Tosar), an appliance salesman, suffers from profoundly low self-esteem (one scene between him and his brother explains a lot), and his first thought when his wife doesn’t answer her cellphone is “that she’s forgotten me.” In a sincere effort to keep Pilar (Laia Marull) from divorcing him, he attends anger-management therapy and sees a counselor.
Pilar, for her part, leaves Antonio and takes their young son Juan (Nicolás Fernández Luna) with her to her sister Ana’s (Candela Peña) house. Ana is engaged to a loving Scotsman, providing contrast to Pilar and Antonio’s failed marriage, and making Pilar long for happier days. Ana and Pilar’s mother, a traditionalist, wants a huge church wedding for Ana and tells Pilar, “A woman is never better off alone.” Under these circumstances, you can see why Pilar would be tempted to give Antonio another chance.
The genius of this film is so obvious it’s a wonder more filmmakers don’t try it: It’s realistic, and thus more compelling, because we don’t know how it’s going to end. Real people often reconcile, and they often reconcile even when they shouldn’t. People don’t do that in Hollywood films dealing with this subject, because Hollywood films, for all their color, are still pretty black and white. Real life, you may have noticed, has a lot of gray areas.
And so Pilar does accept Antonio’s apologies and does try living together again, even as she knows, deep down, that it’s not going to work. Laia Marull, a lovely actress with sad eyes, perfectly enacts the behavior of a woman in an unhealthy relationship — the shame that makes you keep it a secret, the anger at friends who “don’t understand.”
Luis Tosar is equally powerful as Antonio, a hairy, brutish man whose faults can be traced and whose desire to make Pilar love him is genuine. What we feel for him is not sympathy, exactly; more like recognition. His abusive actions are the outgrowth of psychological and emotional problems that we’ve encountered. He has traits that we’ve seen in ourselves.
Eventually, there is a turning point, when it becomes clear the marriage either will or will not work. (I wouldn’t dream of spoiling it for you.) Even as that moment is dizzying in its intensity, it remains grounded in human nature. There’s no melodrama anywhere in the film, only drama, with every single moment superbly acted and startlingly believable.
A (1 hr., 42 min.; in Spanish with subtitles; )