Lionsgate // 1996 // 92 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Daryl Loomis // August 1st, 2008
Robbery. Fraud. Betrayal. He's just getting started.
Three masked thugs terrorize, beat, and rob an elderly shopkeeper for no apparent reason. The old man lays on the ground, frightened and bewildered. He looks up at the female thief and asks, "Why are you doing this, Ona? I'm your father." Angry and disgusted, Ona strips off her mask, throws it aside, and leaves. The others obediently follow with money in hand. Ona says goodbye to the family she's forsaken with a toast to her new family: Rober and Max. With the promise of more crime, Éxtasis begins like a caper film, but director Mariano Barroso pulls the rug out from his characters to tell a much more interesting story about families and the deceit people will accept from theirs.
Rober (Javier Bardem, Between Your Legs), his girlfriend, Ona (Liere Berrocal), and their friend, Max (Daniel Guzman) have a great little plan. Angry at their families and dissatisfied with their boring lives, they'll rob their families, move far away, and open a bar to live the good life. While their first crime comes off without a hitch, Max is shot in the foot on the second one. Not only have they failed in getting rich, but Max is now in jail with no way to post bail. Rober comes up with a solution to at least one of their problems, however. Daniel (Federico Luppi, The Devil's Backbone), Max's dad, has never seen his adult son and, more than that, is filthy, stinking rich. Rober will impersonate Max and beg his "dad" for the money. Daniel readily accepts his "son" and is ready to make amends for his neglect, throwing money and luxury at Rober that he's never dreamed of. The group plans to rob Daniel as soon as possible but, as Rober becomes more infatuated with his new life, he begins to threaten their perfect plan.
Their plan seems easy at first: Rober is simply going to ask Daniel, as his son, for the money; that it's owed to him after all these years. Daniel is one of the biggest theater directors in the world, with a mansion full of trinkets that prove it and more money than any of them can imagine. The amount they need is, for Daniel, like pulling change from his couch and this seems like the simplest, most natural plan. Once Max is out of jail, they'll be on their way and nobody is hurt. Daniel so readily accepts the idea of having a son, however, that getting the money was even simpler than they thought, and taking the scam further seems like the only smart thing to do, no matter how convoluted their plan may be. Rober is charming and quickly ingratiates himself into Daniel's life, making himself at home with everything and everyone, including Daniel's lover and now a fading star, Lola (Silvia Munt), who is more than willing to make some time for her maestro's young son while he cases the joint.
The moment that Rober begins impersonating Max, the focus of Éxtasis shifts dramatically off of the trio of crooks and onto the growing relationship between Rober and Daniel. They are a convincingly awkward father and son combo, both because the two people have never met and one is trying to scam the other. Bardem and Luppi are both excellent in their roles. They have a believably forced chemistry that underscores this natural lack of trust. Rober, constantly trying to keep his story straight, is naturally stiff like a son meeting his father for the first time. Daniel is dumbfounded by the shock of having his son in front of him. He is warm and inviting, but there's something about this that doesn't sit right with him. Daniel badly wants to ask Rober why he has shown up all of a sudden, but is afraid that asking him will scare him away. While he may be in love with the idea of having a son, Daniel's not blind or stupid. He can see his son poking around in expensive places and knows that he's being scammed but, at the risk of losing what he's just gained, he is willing to let it happen.
Using this setup, Barroso puts together a nice portrait of the importance of family. The three crooks specifically target their family members, vocally renouncing them. It's more than a thrill to hurt their families, it's pretty good money, too, and they strike gold with Max's dad. Once, many years before, he renounced family of his own and, seeing his errors, will do whatever it takes to make it up to Max. If only he were talking to his real son. In impersonating Max, Rober takes away any chance that Max can ever legitimately meet his father. Finding his father never mattered to Max before; he was mostly bitter at the thought of him. Now, though, seeing the benefits that Rober has reaped -- a lavish house to live in, the lead role in a hit play, a famous older lover -- it kills Max that Rober has both stolen his family and, by accepting the gifts offered to him, forgotten their plan. To both Max and Ona, who knows Rober cheats on her, he has forsaken the new family that they'd built. Doing this, Rober has gone too far.
Well written and smartly acted, Éxtasis works on most levels. Bardem and Luppi are the stars of the film, but everyone fits their roles very well. Silvia Munt, as the older lover, is perfect. She is able to turn from looking every bit the vamp one second to tired and resigned to her life with Daniel, to her a mean old bastard who won't even cast her in good parts anymore. The trio of crooks, Daniel, and Lola are essentially the extent of the speaking roles in the film, and Barroso seems to have intended a somewhat stagey feel. After the first few minutes of action, the film becomes very dialog-heavy with very little change in scenery. Borroso still builds plenty of tension, however; Éxtasis is sharply edited, tensely told, and effective all around.
Lionsgate could have done better with their release of the film, however. The colors are muted and outdoor scenes are very grainy. The transfer appears free of defects, but they seem to have done nothing to remaster the picture. The sound is fine, but there isn't much for the speakers to show off in this dialog heavy film. There are no extras on the disc.
While I do think Éxtasis is very effective overall, some parts of the setup are silly. Rober is authenticated as Daniel's son by his dual-colored eyes, which feels like some kind of ridiculous James Bond gimmick. More than this though, after the initial setup, Ona and Max essentially disappear from the film. We get no sense of their relationship together, though they seem to be old friend. We only know each of them in relation to Rober, and this really hurts the story.
A decade before Javier Bardem was winning Oscars by killing people with an air gun, he was something of a heartthrob in this effective little film. Well written with strong performances from everyone, Éxtasis is recommended.
Not guilty, though Lionsgate should have done a better job with this film.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
Running Time: 92 Minutes
Release Year: 1996
MPAA Rating: Not Rated