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Elvira Fuentes (Leonor Watling) lives in Madrid with her silent, pensive mother and secretive sister in a simple tenement building toward the end of World War II. Her father, a doctor, was executed after being accused of communism, causing Elvira's family to lose everything. While awaiting her husband's release from prison and in need of money, Elvira secures a job as a maid to the wealthy Pablo (Leonardo Sbaraglia), an Argentinian businessman with ties to the Nazi Party. Pablo instantly senses Elvira's appreciation of beauty and culture, and over books and music and wine, they fall in love and begin an affair, much to the consternation of Pablo's companion and business partner, the hard-edged and practical Alina (Cecilia Roth), who instantly resents Elvira's presence and keeps her off-guard with a mix of thinly veiled threats and sexual innuendo.
Tensions mount when Elvira becomes more aware of Pablo's business dealings, as well as their vastly disparate political and ideological beliefs, causing both Pablo's and Elvira's inner circles to display an increasing sense of mistrust toward the other.
Too many period dramas come across as elaborate dress-up parties, but Beyond Desire captures the mid-40s with understated elegance. From the set design, to the gorgeous, detailed costuming, the cinematography, and the somber but sweeping score that sets just the right tone, this film looks and feels authentic. What is more captivating than the dialogue is what is not said. Elvira and Pablo communicate a great deal through simple touches and glances, and because of this, a great deal of dialogue is unnecessary.
There is a great deal of chemistry between the two leads, and overall, the acting is very good. Beyond Desire is primarily a love story, but because the Spanish Civil War is used as a backdrop, along with the looming presence of Nazis, it is quite suspenseful and engrossing until the last 30 minutes or so, when the plot shifts focus from the love story to the death of Hitler and the ensuing political fallout, as well as to the love triangle that develops between Elvira, Pablo, and Elvira's newly-released husband, who wants her back. At that point, Beyond Desire begins to drag almost to a screeching halt, to the point where viewers may be tempted to shut it off altogether. It is a disappointment for a movie that starts out with so much promise and intrigue to devolve into what feels like a 40s-era Lifetime movie. The ending is unbelievable and unsatisfying, and it will leave viewers feeling as though they wasted their time. Overall, Beyond Desire conveys the all-too realistic and somewhat depressing sensibility that the heady throes of initial attraction all too often give way to the sad realization that one's beloved has been built into a mere figment of one's imagination.
Although an English language track is available, I recommend watching the film in the original Castillian with English subtitles; Castillian is a very proper, melodic Spanish that rests easily on the ears, and it is much less distracting than noting how the lip movements do not match the words being spoken.
The picture on this disc is excellent. The colors, though muted to convey a sense of time and place, are sharp, and the overall picture is crisp. It is clear that a great deal of effort was put into making this film come across as visually appealing, and it works quite well. The setting is just as much a part of the plot as the characters are, and the lovely scenery is done justice by the high quality of the picture.
It is often difficult to judge the sound quality of a foreign language film, as more attention is paid to the subtitles, however, with Beyond Desire, it is clear the sound (Dolby Digital 5.1) is not up to par. Again, this may not matter to those who will rely on the English subtitles, but it is worth noting in terms of overall presentation.
The special features are worth a look. Besides a number of trailers for other Spanish-language films, there are interviews with director Gerardo Vera and principal actors Watling, Roth, and Sbaraglia, with generous video footage of the filming process as well as an explanation of the rather complicated plot. Because this is a foreign language film, it may be helpful to view these interviews before watching the film itself. The director's insights into the effects love has on personal judgments about others are particularly helpful, as are the individual actors' insights into their characters. The deleted scenes are a mystery, because they appear in the film. With no director's commentary, it is difficult to know why they were included as special features in the first place.
I was disappointed by this film because I wanted so much to like it, based on its initially intoxicating love story and exquisite attention to detail in terms of costume and set design. Those who enjoy foreign-language films may want to give this one a try, but because of the completely ludicrous ending, I can't recommend it except as a rental. A far better foreign language film is 2004's Maria Full of Grace, which focuses on players on the lowest rungs of the lucrative international drug trade. Check that one out instead.