Reviewed at Fantastic Fest 2010.
“Agnosia,” like “Julia’s Eyes,” which screens at the festival today, is the product of a Guillermo del Toro protege — Eugenio Mira, whose first film, 2004’s “The Birthday,” caught the director/producer/force of nature’s attention, if few others’. And it looks like it — working off a screenplay by “The Devil’s Backbone” writer Antonio Trashorras, Mira adeptly assembles lush, gothic visuals of the type that have become del Toro’s signature. If only the film had the same amount of emotional impact. “Agnosia” is certainly the most lavishly beautiful film at Fantastic Fest, but it’s structured around a story that doesn’t seem to have enough to it to support a feature, either in what’s at stake or in the characters.
The film starts with a group of investors arriving in the countryside to try out a new telescopic rifle, the joint product of German weapon manufacturer Holbein (led by an efficiently sinister Martina Gedeck) and Spanish lensmaker Artur Prats (Sergi Mateu), who’s named his line after his young daughter, Joana. Just as the demonstration takes a turn toward the troubling, with the attendees demonstrating they shouldn’t be given access to better arms, Joana collapses. We skip forward a few years, to where Joana is grown woman (played by Bárbara Goenaga) now suffering from the titular disorder — a bout of childhood encephalitis has left her unable to distinguish voices and faces. Everyone in the manor has to wear colored ribbons so that Joana can determine who’s a servant, who’s her doctor, Meissner (Jack Taylor) and who’s her fiancé, her father’s right hand man Carles (Eduardo Noriega).
“Agnosia” takes on the form of a turn-of-the-century fairy tale, with Joana as the porcelain princess locked away in her castle, waiting for the right prince. Carles genuinely loves her, but is too closed-off to express his feelings. Vicent (Félix Gómez), who’s hired to infiltrate the house and, eventually, pretend to be Carles in order to lure a company secret from her, wins his way into her confidence by confessing to the adoration the man he’s posing as has never shared — though he, naturally, begins to develop feelings of his own for Joana. As the scheme creaks along, I kept waiting for the additional twist that would reveal what the movie was really about. That twist never arrived. One or two scenes hint at a supernatural thread that doesn’t come through — the film is, ultimately, a melodrama about historical industrial espionage, focused on a scheme that seems ludicrously complicated for the potential payoff.
But the real problem is Joana, an extreme version of your standard saintly blind character with additional sensory handicaps. Pretty, delicate and in her very existence desperately needy, she’s not a terribly charismatic or sympathetic center for the film — vulnerability seems her primary appeal and the biggest draw for the two men in her life. “Agnosia” sometimes tries to show things from her point of view, but the best it can manage is a funhouse mirror effect and vocal distortion that don’t give a good sense of how disorienting her disorder can be. Because of that, her Victorian-style hysterical attacks, caused by, say, a towel falling off a bar when she’s along in the bathtub, seem ridiculous rather than suspenseful. Her fate, confined to room swathed in black material to minimalize the stress of too much outside stimulation, isn’t one in which it’s easy, or perhaps even possible, to be invested.
“Agnosia” does not yet have U.S. distribution.