Sunday, February 28, 2016

THE VANISHED ELEPHANT: Javier Fuentes-León's art film about love and identity arrives

It's being marketed as some kind of "thriller," with mentions of movies on the order of Tell No One and The Secret in Their Eyes tossed in for good measure. Comparisons, as they say, are odious, and so far as the new Spanish-language film from Peru/Columbia/ Spain, THE VANISHED ELEPHANT, is concerned, these do the movie little justice and, in fact, just might sink it once this comparative word-of-mouth gets out. Tell No One was a hugely intricate and fast-moving thriller, and one of, if not the most-successful-at-the-boxoffice foreign language film of its decade. More slow-moving, The Secret in Their Eyes, was also a kind of mystery thriller that built to a whopping and surprising conclusion (in addition to walking away with Best Foreign Language Film that year).

As written and directed by Javier Fuentes-León (shown at left, who gave us the bisexual drama about death and the closet, Undertow, some years back), The Vanished Elephant comes much closer to a genuine "art" film -- a kind of puzzle about the artistic process, identity, love and narcissism -- which poses as a mystery only in the sense that all of our identities are, finally, mysterious. This is also quite a beautiful film to view, one of the most visually compelling I have seen in the past year or so. I believe Señor Fuentes-León means this visual beauty to be part of the puzzle, as well as the film's fun. It is, in both cases.

We come back again and again to visuals that remind us of former visuals and/or begin to fill in certain blanks -- sometimes literally, at other times symbolically. As our hero, a cop-turned-mystery-writer, Edo (a commanding, encompassing performance by Salvador del Solar, above) tries to unravel the disappearance of his girlfriend (played by Vanessa Saba, below), some years previous, he comes up against quite an arsenal of oddities.

Chief among these is a man who appears to be impersonating the leading character, Rafael Pineda (Lucho Cáceres, below, right), in the series of popular mystery novels that Edo writes. There is also a District attorney set on proving that Edo was the person responsible for his girlfriend's disappearance, a photographer who has organized a new exhibit around Edo's famous novels, and other possible red herrings.

The "elephant" of the title is found in a museum painting that doubles as a rock sculpture relic somewhat destroyed during a famous earthquake that took a huge death toll just at the time of that Edo's girlfriend went missing.

Deaths begin to pile up, and yet the movie never seems to become any kind of realistic mystery. Instead the clues lead back and back again to our Edo, and Señor del Solar's quiet charisma and persuasive acting keeps us both on point and on hold as the mystery continues to be revealed.

As is sometimes the case, it's the journey rather than the destination that makes The Vanished Elephant as intriguing as it is. When we reach the finale, it is probably del Solar's handsome, troubled face that counts for most, making this movie about identity and losing oneself in grief and fantasy so unusually compelling -- even, finally, quite moving and sad.

From Oscilloscope Laboratories and running 109 minutes, The Vanished Elephant opens here in South Florida this Friday, March 4, at the Bill Cosford Cinema in Coral Gables and the Cinema Paradiso in Hollywood. To see further playdates, cities and theaters, click here then scroll down.

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