Fox // 2002 // 125 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Joel Pearce (Retired) // July 8th, 2004
A hidden truth, a haunting drama...a beautiful story.
My exposure to Spanish cinema has been virtually nonexistent to this point. If The City of No Limits is any indication of the work that is coming out of Spain, I hope to watch a lot more in the future. This is an intimate family mystery, the kind of film that rarely if ever gets produced in North America.
Max (Fernando Fernán Gómez) is dying. He has a brain tumor, and for some reason believes that he needs to help his friend Rancel escape the hospital and the city. While most of his family is more interested in gaining control over his estate than his personal struggles, his youngest son Victor (Leonardo Sbaraglia, Intacto) tries to help his father find peace in his last days.
Victor's search for Rancel takes him into deep secrets of his family's past, which are carefully guarded by his mother, Marie (Geraldine Chaplin). These secrets, and others, threaten to tear apart the family as the members of this younger generation learn how hard it is to live with the faults of the others.
The City of No Limits is a fascinating film that deserves a far wider audience than it is likely to get in North America. Every aspect of it works well, combining into a thought provoking analysis of relationship and memory.
The strongest part of the film may be the script, which begins with plenty of ambiguity about what the film will become. Starting with a tense scene that may or may not be imagined by Max, it is not until near the end that we are certain whether he is imagining the danger he is in. Information about the characters and past is fed out to the audience perfectly. Each revelation is surprising, but none betray the believability and logic of the premise. Many difficult and complicated issues are addressed in the script, and these issues are threaded through subtly and carefully. The film muses deeply about politics and family, but it never feels heavy handed.
Fortunately, all of the performances live up to the high quality of the script. Victor is the perfect hero for this film. Returning to the family after several years, he finds himself not only dealing with the imminent death of his father but also a love triangle with his girlfriend and an ex-lover. As he gets more deeply embroiled in these situations, he has a lot of tough decisions to face. Leonardo Sbaraglia handles this difficult role well. He is immediately likeable and handles the tension in his family in a believable way. He is both an insider, as a part of the family, but he is also an outsider since he has spent such a long time away from them, running away from the family business that he still has no interest in. This may be the reason that Max chooses him to help, and it also gives the audience a good vantage point. Victor is loyal to his father in that he is willing to continue to help his father even though he thinks it's probably just the paranoia of a demented old man. For him, it is not a question of whether it is true, it is more important to help his father in any way he can during this last, painful time of his life.
The supporting cast is also excellent. As love interests, Eileen and Carmen are both complicated and interesting characters. Eileen is more than just a jealous, threatened girlfriend. Her decision to trust Victor to do what's right is impressive. Carmen is just as interesting. Rather than just being a temptress, she is a broken, heartbroken woman who is unable to let go of the past. The other great performance comes from Geraldine Chaplin as Marie. At first, she simply seems cold and strict. As we learn more about the things she has covered up, though, she becomes more and more monstrous. Most of the smaller roles also work well. The scenes with the whole family feel just like a real family, and I felt great pity for Max as he was losing his sanity and his family.
Tying together the great performances and script are some top class cinematography and editing. The City of No Limits has some of the best lighting I have ever seen. Whole stories are told simply using light and shadows. Each move of the camera has significance as well, and it is clear that this is the work of a master filmmaker. Some movies are simply made, but this one has obviously been carefully crafted, and it makes a big difference.
There are many other things to say about The City of No Limits, but they should be discovered while watching the film. I will not spoil here what direction the film goes.
Unfortunately, the disc does not live up to the high quality of the film. It is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The colors are replicated well, and it has a good black level, but the image is marred by some strong edge enhancement. That lowers the impact of the phenomenal cinematography, and it's a shame. The sound, fortunately, is much better. Sporting a rich Spanish 5.1 track, the mix is far more active than I would have expected for this type of film, and I was consistently surprised by how well The City of No Limits sounds. The rich orchestral score moves freely across the soundstage, and the dialogue is crisp and mixed perfectly. There is also a stereo English track, which should be avoided at all costs. The English subtitles are good, always easy to read and understand, even in scenes with lots of dialogue.
Considering Fox is advertising their new Cinema Latino series, they may want to consider adding some special features to draw potential customers. This disc has no extra features whatsoever -- no trailers, no interviews, not even one of those pointless picture galleries. This film would benefit from some additional insight from cast members or writer/director Antonio Hernandez.
Hopefully the other films in Fox's Cinema Latino series will be as impressive as The City of No Limits. I also hope that Fox will start to treat foreign films like this with some more respect. Any fan of great mysteries and dramas ought to at least rent this film, though I hesitate to recommend a purchase of this disc. If the first wave of this series is successful, though, perhaps Fox will put more effort into further releases.
Fox is ordered to pay a fine to the cast and crew of this fine film for releasing it on such a disappointing disc.
Review content copyright © 2004 Joel Pearce; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 125 Minutes
Release Year: 2002
MPAA Rating: Not Rated