Spanish director and scriptwriter Alejandro Amenábar has gotten a fair amount of attention in the English-speaking world of late, and well-deserved it is. At the moment, he is probably best known for directing The Others, as well as directing and writing Open Your Eyes (Abre los ojos), the outstanding film that spawned a totally unnecessary remake in Vanilla Sky. Amenábar's film Thesis (original title: Tesis) takes us back to 1996, where we can see that his success is no fluke: it has been in the cards from the beginning.
Thesis was director/writer Alejandro Amenábar's first feature film, made when he was only 23 after deciding to stop studying film and start making it. The film Thesis begins with Ángela (Ana Torrent), a film student at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid (as Amenábar was) who is working on a thesis on audiovisual violence in the media. Her research leads her toward more and more extreme examples of media violence, putting her in contact with a fellow student, Chema (Fele Martínez), who has an extensive collection of gory videos. But the real horror starts when she stumbles across evidence that behind the urban legend of "snuff" films there lies a horrifying reality... and that the murderous filmmakers involved know that she knows too much.
Though it is in fact a very entertaining, tension-filled thriller, Thesis is more than that; the film is self-reflective and critical, both of the film industry and of viewers themselves, even as they watch the movie. Throughout the film, Thesis circles around a dark dichotomy in human behavior: we don't want to look, but we are compelled to anyway; we want to reject violence, but it draws us in. The opening scene of the film encapsulates this theme, hinting at the greater development of it in the film: Ángela is coming home on the Madrid subway when the train halts unexpectedly; the conductor informs them that a man has just committed suicide by throwing himself in front of the train. "Don't look," he says, but can't help adding, "he's been cut in two." The faces of the disembarking passengers are filled with horror and disgust, yet they crowd around trying to get a look at the gruesome scene before they are herded away.
The character of Ángela is a perfect stand-in for the viewer in this way. Unlike the more openly voyeuristic Chema, she claims that her interest in violence is strictly academic: for her thesis. Yet we can't help but realize that she is secretly drawn to it as well; realizing this, it disgusts her, but still compels her. Both Torrent and Martínez give us believable characters who also manage to break stereotyped "thriller" conventions about the behavior of male and female characters; they are, and remain, well-rounded and interesting characters who develop as the story unfolds. Thesis also features a young-looking Eduardo Noriega as Bosco; he appears in the protagonist's role in Amenábar's next film, Open Your Eyes.
From beginning to end, Thesis takes a hard look at "violence as entertainment," pushing the viewer to be more self-aware, to recognize the potential for violence that exists within all of us and the possible consequences of satisfying some of our darker desires. The film asks, is "what the public wants" always right? Where should a filmmaker draw the line? Is there a hidden hypocrisy in the fact that we are both repelled and attracted by scenes of violence?
Rather ironically, it appears that the Region 1 version of the film has been slightly edited: the running time of the original is listed at 125 minutes, but the R1 DVD lists a running time of 121 minutes. Where are the missing four minutes? I suspect that they were cut to get an R rating. I first saw Thesis in Spain, and though it was several years ago, I seem to recall that the film showed at least one disturbing clip from a "snuff" film that Ángela finds that does not appear in the DVD version. On the other hand, it appears that the Region 1 disc is less edited than the 119-minute R2 version.
It's truly a disgrace that a fine film like Thesis is presented on DVD in such a bad transfer. This so-called Special Edition is special only in that it includes an interview with the director; the transfer appears to be the same as in the earlier release, and in any case is abysmal.
The film is presented in non-anamorphic 1.66:1 widescreen. Various online sources list the DVD as full-frame/pan-and-scan; at least for the special edition, this is incorrect. I have not been able to determine entirely to my satisfaction whether the 1.66:1 ratio is the theatrical aspect ratio; it does look to me that the film has been slightly cropped on the side, perhaps from a 1.70:1 original.
The image quality is simply dreadful; it looks like it was copied straight off a worn VHS tape. The print is dirty, with speckles and scratches appearing frequently. Contrast is abysmal, with detail disappearing entirely in dark scenes, and colors are equally dismal, looking drab and washed-out, with no vibrancy whatsoever. The image is also blurry, as can be seen particularly when any letters appear on the screen; they're fuzzy and haloed.
To add insult to injury, the English subtitles are burned-in. Yes, it's a "special edition" and they couldn't even manage to make optional subtitles. This makes for a very distracting viewing experience for those of us who understand Spanish and would like to watch it without subtitles.
Thesis is presented in a Spanish Dolby 2.0 soundtrack, which is reasonably good. The overall sound is clean and of good quality, with the dialogue coming across clearly without any noise or distortion. Music and sound effects are heard distinctly while maintaining a good balance with the dialogue portion of the track.
The main special feature is a reasonably substantial twenty-minute interview with director Alejandro Amenábar, which is listed as "The Making of Thesis documentary." The interview is in Spanish with burned-in English subtitles. Apart from that, we get a trailer for Thesis and several other films, and filmographies.
Thesis is an outstanding film presented in a depressingly bad DVD transfer. Yet the power of the film comes through nonetheless: it draws viewers in to its dark and chilling world, challenging them to recognize the omnipresence of violence in our media, and, also, our complicity in creating violence, as we both deplore it (in real life) and demand it (in our entertainment). If only it could be given the DVD treatment it truly deserves, as Artisan did with Amenábar's second (and even better) film Open Your Eyes. Were it not for the image quality, Thesis would easily get a "Highly recommended" from me on the strength of the film alone; as is, it gets a Recommended.