Director Agustin Villaronga created something of a stir with his 1986 film In a Glass Cage (Tras el cristal), a kind of truly shocking Night Porter in which the director made no compromises in his harrowing exploration of his characters’ sexuality. El mar is a more temperate, less provocative piece, although Villaronga still considers it a horror movie. Set in Mallorca around the time of the Civil War, the film begins with a brutal killing which is witnessed by three young friends, Andreu, Manuel and Francisca. Ten years later, Andreu arrives at a sanatorium where the victims of a rampant tuberculosis epidemic are taken for treatment. Manuel, who has grown into a sickly, solitary young man, is already a resident, as is Francisca, now a nun who devotes her time to caring for the ill and the dying.
The sanatorium, which at first seems like an oasis of calm and tranquillity, begins more and more to resemble the ‘bad house’ of the horror film. Villaronga uses this troubling environment to explore his usual themes: hidden desire, religious obsession, death, homosexuality and delirious fantasy. The director’s talent for wistful, faintly surreal imagery and his painterly use of lighting lend the film a sense of poetry, while a collection of flawless performances from the young cast helps to consolidate the poignancy of their characters’ struggles.
2000. English subtitles. Colour. Dolby stereo SR. 107 mins.