Review by Tope Ogundare
It’s a gleefully perverse mix of the stately and the garish: pre-teen Alicia in a hot-pink anime-inspired dress, standing still as a doll while an old man has a gun trained on her. Bizarre moments of this kind pepper Spanish ‘art thriller’ Magical Girl, disrupting the spring-tight atmosphere and spotlighting the deliberate sterility of Spanish director Carlos Vermut’s visual approach. The film is truly a stilted dance of the absurd and the austere, and it’ll either tickle or it’ll test.
The film’s initial premise is simple enough despite strong elements of psychological mystery. In a financially moronic, wholly unnecessary gesture of love for his dying daughter, unemployed single dad Luis goes to criminal lengths to obtain the aforementioned costume. What follows is a slowly spiralling story of despair, prostitution and quietly bloody mayhem that aims for titillating tragedy. Yes, Magical Girl is a classic yarn of blackmail and supposed intrigue; a throwback to the laconic pulp fiction of yesteryear dressed up in a far crisper suit and a less dusty coat. Sadly, the grubbiness has been replaced with a seductive shallowness. But the trouble with all referential and self-reflexive art is intuiting how knowing and deliberate this shallowness is, and what exactly this knowingness signifies.
Admittedly, there are sly intimations of political commentary that may register more meaningfully with Spanish and general Eurozone audiences. Digs are made at the Spanish Constitution, allusions are made to a decaying healthcare industry, and violence is used to link sex and economics to seedy effect. This film may very well be a grindhouse representation of the Euro-crisis, and however appreciable these references are to the unschooled viewer, their presence probably demands more than surface-level consideration.
Yet this somewhat-beloved sophomore feature – beloved enough to reign supreme at last year’s San Sebastian Film Festival and boast Pedro Almodóvar among its vocal supporters – remains of a type: that which luxuriates in its somewhat clinical aesthetics and sadomasochistic sense of pace. In a way, the film is something of a Spanish counterpart to the so-called weird-wave films currently trickling out of Greece, such as Alps (MIFF, 2012). But unlike those films, Magic Girl lacks a certain extremism, a certain bite and natural oddness. Were it as outré as it imagined itself to be and had it committed to its deepest darkest blackness, the film might feel like more than a stylistically accomplished illusion.