Review: Magical Girl (Vermut, 2014) – SFIFF 2015

Courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society

Courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society

Films can be dark in many ways. You have your classic revenge narratives, your psychosexual thrillers, your gritty shoot-’em-ups, and then your plain old sad bad-luck stories. Spanish director and writer Carlos Vermut‘s second feature length film somehow manages to encompass all these categories in one black web of cruelty, depravation, and misbegotten love. Magical Girl is a deviously twisted thriller of people behaving loathsomely.

Luis (Luis Bermejo), former school teacher and single parent, dotes on his only child Alicia (Lucía Pollán), a girl stricken with terminal cancer. Flipping through her journal one evening, he discovers her secret desire to own a one-of-a-kind dress designed for an anime character. An online search reveals the dress’s astronomical price, but, undeterred, Luis racks his brain for ways to come up with the sum. Unfortunately, selling his beloved classics at the by-the-pound book shop brings in only a piddling amount, his friends don’t have the funds to lend him, and there’s no work to be had. When chance brings him into contact with a wealthy but disturbed young woman named Bárbara (Bárbara Lennie), Luis seizes the opportunity to exploit her vulnerability for the money he needs. The desperate Bárbara, in turn, seeks her former madam, requesting an introduction to a client notorious for his sadistic predilections. The resulting encounters touch off a series of more-than-unfortunate events.

Bookending the story is Damián (played by the prolific José Sacristán), a mysterious figure from Barbara’s past. We know him only as a former teacher whose unexplained obsession with Bárbara has ruined his life. This kind of narrative restraint is characteristic of Magical Girl and is its best quality. Like author Milan Kundera, Vermut boils a story down to its essentials. But the director goes even further, employing suggestion rather than exposition to invoke his brand of horror off-screen–in the shadowy corners of our imaginations. A wise decision, for what’s left is pure psychology. No distracting us with scenes of stomach-churning physical violence  or the details of vile and complicated entanglements. If the audience is left to do some of the creative legwork, we are rewarded for it by the film’s brisk pace and sly surprises.

Add to that a few rambling monologues pregnant with mystical fatality–scenes that out-McCarthy Cormac himself–competent performances by Bermejo, Lennie, Sacristán, and the oddly unsettling young Pollán, and you have one of the 2015 San Francisco International Film Festival‘s most finely crafted films.