Sitges 2012 Review: THE SECOND DEATH Finds New Terror in Religion

Brian Clark, European Editor
Argentinean director Santiago Fernández Calvete's The Second Death is an oddity: A hard-boiled, supernatural mystery that revolves heavily around Catholic dogma. Its engagement with religion is far more complex than the slew of exorcism movies we've been subjected to as of late, and in some ways, its plot goes into far more audacious places than any of those. At the same time, the tough, no nonsense style of the film results in a final product that feels surprisingly subdued, and while it's often moody and evocative, it could have used a bit more showmanship and drama to really drive its intriguing premise home.

The titular term, according to Christian beliefs, refers to the eternal suffering that the soul endures after death in the Lake of Fire. Alba Aiello, a cynical homicide detective, starts wondering about the idea after she finds bodies of multiple victims who were burnt and charred while on their knees in a prayer position. Aiello actually moved to the small, quiet town where she works to escape demons from her past, and more specifically, to not deal with things like mysterious serial killers. But as the bodies add up without clues, it seems as if fate is reminding her that no one is safe from their past.

This becomes especially true when a little boy, known as the magician, shows up in the town. He's a clairvoyant, but rather than predicting the future, he has the ability to touch someone's photograph and see their past. Once convinced of his ability, Aiello begins to consult him about the victims, and what she discovers is honestly pretty bonkers. In a good way.

However, the film's style remains curiously muted. It uses a nearly monochromatic color-palette and careful composition to keep us in the tired and lonely mood of its protagonist. The interactions between characters and even the narration are equally lifeless, and, looking back, I can't actually recall if anyone smiled during the whole movie. It's all very effective, but sometimes to the film's detriment.

First of all, while the cinematography is beautiful in its own way, the overall style begins to feel a bit dull and oppressive as the movie goes on. More importantly though, nothing in the film ever feels particularly urgent. There are a few terrifying images, but there's also wasted potential for both drama and suspense. And once the film finally reveals the true nature of the characters and plot, it doesn't feel as hard-hitting as it should have. The lack of urgency also causes the movie to drag pretty badly in the middle.

But in spite of the tonal problems, there's a lot to recommend about The Second Death. It's a fiercely original take on the mystery genre, and pulls off risks with its narrative that many other films don't even attempt. I wish I could give away a few of them here, but rest assured, this is not your average devil-coming-for-souls horror movie. It ultimately aspires to provide a more nuanced, haunting and thought-provoking experience than the average religious exploitation movie, and while I don't feel like it totally succeeds in all of these areas, I'll take it over ten rip-offs of The Exorcist any day.
 
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