Are we ever truly able to escape the past? The mistakes that we’ve made, opinions we’ve held, and lines that we’ve crossed may feel like ancient history, but they’re always there. Hidden under a thin layer of dust, waiting for someone to swipe their hand across and reveal the ugliness of the worst things we’ve ever done. But does this apply to all people equally? The Chilean thriller Spider from Andrés Wood would argue that this is not the case: some powerful individuals can escape the consequences of their actions, and some sins can be washed away.
Inés (Mercedes Morán) is a respected member of her community, a successful businesswoman, philanthropist, pillar of several local organizations, and proud mother and grandmother. Despite political turmoil in Chile, she and her husband have done quite well for themselves. By all accounts, their reputations are beyond reproach.
But that changes when a mysterious figure from their past reemerges. When Gerardo is arrested for murdering a petty thief, he undergoes a psychiatric evaluation, which creates a serious problem for Inés. If Gerardo talks, what will he say?
Inés, along with Gerardo and her husband Justo, was part of a far right organization during the turbulent 1970s in Chile. They clashed with the pro-communist regime and were responsible for at least one assassination of a high-profile government official. Although for the most part the people in this film have accepted the fact that the 1970s were a time of chaos and the past is perhaps best left in the past, it’s never great to have your name linked to a murder perpetrated by a fascist extremist group. Add to that the fact that Inés was once romantically involved with the long-exiled martyr of the movement, Gerardo, and you can see her concern.
But the real problem is that Inés is a hypocrite: she wants things both ways. She wants to relive the glory days of her exploits with Gerardo (and for that matter, doesn’t seem to regret a single one of them) but at the same time doesn’t want to be held accountable for any of her actions. All of the adventure and ideological purity, none of the prison sentence.
Other than this pointed commentary on the ability of social elites to effortlessly rehabilitate their own images and face no consequences to their misdeeds, there’s little to recommend the sequences of the film that take place in the present day. The older Gerardo’s political motivations are muddled and underdeveloped, despite the exploration of these taking up a massive amount of screen time, and they frequently cross over into violence purely for shock value.
Without question, the strongest elements of Spider are when they dive into the past, exploring the fascist student-run movement that Inés and Gerardo were a part of in the 1970s. Here, the film comes alive, embracing a period atmosphere that feels purposeful and stylized. María Valverde is breathtaking as young Inés, forceful and ambitious and tough as nails. But the real star of the film is Pedro Fontaine as young Gerardo, his intensity and instability perfectly capturing the soul of a true believer who will lay down his life for the movement. When he’s on screen, you can’t look away. Together, he and Valverde make a compelling duo as passionate right-wing leaders and on-again-off-again lovers, their effectiveness at both only occasionally stymied by the presence of Inés’s husband Justo (Gabriel Urzúa).
It’s just a shame that this energy doesn’t carry through to the modern-day segments of the film, because the overall narrative can only succeed with both pieces firing on all cylinders. Spider works better when it’s a period drama about a right-wing rebellion than it does when it’s a political thriller, and its failure to do both equally well weakens the film, but doesn’t necessarily kill it. The film still has a lot to say, and the momentum created during its strongest moments does just enough to push it over the finish line.
(Screened at the Toronto International Film Festival; release TBA)