The Hidden Face (La Cara Oculta) (2011)

Review first published by Cinetalk.

“These cases are more common than you might think – even in this country.”

So says the police officer (Julio Pachón) in charge of investigating the disappearance of Belén (Clara Lago). She is, or was, the girlfriend of Adrián (Quim Gutiérrez), and out of love had followed him from their native Spain to Colombia where he had been offered the conductorship of the Bogota Philharmonic.

A few months later, after they moved into a large modernist house in the Colombian countryside, Belén vanished – although not exactly without trace, as she left Adrián a filmed farewell message (“I’m leaving… don’t look for me and don’t hate me.”). It all seems open and shut – although there is no record of Belén ever leaving the country, her departure from Adrián seems rooted in their relationship problems, and even the suggestion that she may have been kidnapped (which is indeed a common occurrence in Colombia) is dismissed by Adrián as fanciful. Yet his new girlfriend, the local barmaid Fabiana (Marina García), becomes convinced that there is an unseen presence haunting the country house, trying to reach out and make contact.

The Hidden Face is a film of two very different halves. For its first act, genre-savvy viewers will yawn at all the done-to-death tropes, pick up on all the supposedly hidden clues, and smugly congratulate themselves for being so ahead of the game. Then the second half, filling in all the narrative gaps with a series of flashbacks before eventually catching up with where it had earlier left off, will totally wrong-foot everyone, revealing an account of what is really going on that defies predictability, yet remains compellingly coherent. As characters are unmasked in all their petty greed, lust and callousness, an unexpected and unspeakable horror reveals itself, ensuring that we are not the only eyewitnesses to the human foibles and follies on display.

It is all so deftly constructed by writer/director Andrés Baiz (Satanás) that you can forgive it verging occasionally towards melodrama near the end. Most importantly, though, the living hell that is limned by the film also opens up a secret history of postwar migration to Colombia – the ‘hidden face’ of a nation that has long offered shelter to humanity’s darkest impulses. So this is all at once a bizarre love triangle, an even more bizarre ghost story, and a mystery both personal and (mildly) political. Stick with it, and you will be very (un)pleasantly surprised.

Anton Bitel