Manticore – BFI London Film Festival 2022

Reviewer: Richard Maguire

Writer and Director: Carlos Vermut

Spanish film Manticore could be the most disturbing film of the festival. With hints of Frankenstein, Visconti’s Death in Venice and Alex Garland’s Ex Machina, this quiet tale of obsession is chilling, at times, in how ordinary it is. The middle section of Carlos Vermut’s film focuses on a legitimate romance, almost concealing one man’s paedophilic desire for a boy. Vermut’s film is a slow-burn domestic horror.

Nacho Sánchez plays Julián a creature modeller making monsters for violent videogames. His monsters are a good deal more scary than the mythical animal suggested by the film’s title. He works from home most days with anodyne techno playing in the background while he sculpts his horned beasts with the help of VR equipment. One day above his music he hears someone crying for help. It’s the young boy next door, left to fend for himself while his mother goes out to work. A fire has taken hold in the kitchen. Julián kicks down the door and rescues Cristian. While they wait for his mother to return they engage in small talk.

That night Julián has to go the ER with a breathing problem that he thinks has been caused by smoke inhalation. A doctor who looks like Robert De Niro gives Julián a different diagnosis and tells him he is suffering from anxiety. The doctor prescribes anti-anxiety pills. It’s a strange scene in the film and it’s almost as if Vermut is suggesting that the pills are responsible for Julián’s consequent behaviour.

After the hospital, instead of going home, Julián goes to bar and picks up a woman to take home. He finds that he can’t perform. However, the next day after spotting Cristian with his mother in a restaurant, Julián begins to create a 3D computerised model of the boy. It’s eerily life-like, and Julián uses it as sexual stimulus.

It’s a dark moment in the film, and so it’s a relief when Julián meets Diana (a deceptively breezy Zoe Stein) at a work party and they begin, slowly, to date. After the initial meeting between them you can almost forget that Diana bears a striking resemblance to Cristian with their bowl haircuts. In their conversations, we find out a little more about Julián: he doesn’t like travelling, his mother died when he was a boy and he has a distant relationship with his father. But these details are sparse and give no concrete understandings of his meek and hesitant behaviour. And as he fights his fears to become closer to Diana it’s almost impossible not to like him.

Sánchez’s performance is astonishing in a role that surely many actors would have refused. His gentle and quiet manner doesn’t hide a monster underneath, raging to be let loose. His monstrosity is in his mildly awkward ways and perhaps in the way he follows Diana down Madrid’s streets one day. It’s only towards the end of the film that Sánchez gives something away; his eyes are driven by something like hunger.

In one scene Julián, Diana and her erstwhile boyfriend discuss the links between videogames and violence. Diana’s boyfriend believes that there is a strong link as in videogames the player is the one who is enacts the violence even if it were in the digital world. He says horror films are less influential as here the viewer watches someone else inflict the blows upon the victim. Julián laughs both at this theories, but Vermut refuses to pick sides here. For the main, his film just watches; it doesn’t moralise.

Another way to achieve Manticore’s impartiality is the choice by Vermut to not use any music that would guide our emotions. Apart from Julián’s techno we only hear snatches of dance music and the terrible piano playing by Cristian; otherwise the film is virtually silent, and this decision makes it a tougher and a more rewarding watch.

Manticore is screening at the BFI London Film Festival 2022.

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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