The year is 1982. The people are rising up against Argentina’s crumbling military regime. But in the hallways of a Buenos Aires school for the elite, dictatorship lives.
This is the setting for Diego Lerman’s allegorical film, La Mirada Invisible or The Invisible Eye, an adaptation of Martin Kohan’s award-winning novel Moral Sciences which looks at the consequences of repression.
At the start of the film, schoolmarm Marita (Julieta Zylberberg) leads two lines of students through the school’s stony hallways which Lerman presents to us in cold, pale blues and greys. Everyone marches at an arms-length distance from one another, eyes forward. Their dead expressions say: “Recess has been canceled forever.”
Marita looks the most miserable, with her thin, sallow face and her severe bun. She looks like a 23-year-old who has never been kissed. Her only friend is her boss, Mr. Biasutto (a moustached Osmar Nunez), a father-figure turned suitor whose romantic talk includes gems such as: “Subversion is like cancer.”
They are eager to enforce the school’s strict rules; but their invisible eyes become leering eyes. Biasutto’s are focused on Marita but Marita’s are aimed at a much younger prize.
Lerman doesn’t do much to convince us that the student who is the object of Marita’s affections, is worthy of her obsession. But that succeeds in furthering our discomfort. The boy who sports a Clark Kent comb-over and has no distinguishable personality, was able to charm the heroine by simply smiling at her. At one point, she leans in to smell him and faints — either because she inhaled too deeply and forgot to breathe or because he smelled like what boys his age are apt to smell like: gym socks and spicy armpits.
With little dialogue, Zylberberg is able to fully inhabit this lonely, repressed woman. The camera’s unflinching eye lingers on her weary and yearning facial expressions; we see her filing her nails on the subway and shrinking awkwardly away from others at a party.
The full effect is that you never feel sorry for Marita, yet you cannot stop watching, and soon enough you’re in the boy’s restroom with her while she spies on the aforementioned student. (The school encourages her supervision — without knowing that she is doing so while squatting over a potty — by telling her that “good surveillance” is the secret to good discipline.)
This is where Lerman’s elegant film loses its subtleties and eeriness. There’s little to do during the last third of the film but dread the inevitable: Will someone discover Marita in the restroom with her panties in a bunch?
The movie’s ominous score has a beat which ticks like a time bomb and as rebellion explodes in the streets, tensions and emotions erupt in the school. The message: when there is suppression, everything goes to crap.
A shortened version of this review ran in the Post on May 26 2011. The Invisible Eye opens May 26 at the Bell Lightbox in Toronto.