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Original title: Nieve negra

D: Martin Hodara / 91m

Cast: Ricardo Darín, Leonardo Sbaraglia, Laia Costa, Federico Luppi, Dolores Fonzi, Andrés Herrera, Biel Montoro, Liah O’Prey, Mikel Iglesias, Iván Luengo

Upon learning of his father’s death, Marcos (Sbaraglia), along with his pregnant wife, Laura (Costa), travels to his home in Patagonia to settle his father’s affairs and sell the family home. But he encounters an obstacle to his plans in the form of his older brother, Salvador (Darín). Salvador still lives in the family home, and has no wish to move to somewhere new; nor is he tempted by gaining a share of the sale price that’s being offered by a local lawyer, Sepia (Luppi). He makes it clear that he wants to stay because of a tragedy that befell the family when he and Marcos when children, and their younger brother, Juan (Luengo), was accidentally killed during a hunting trip. Their father (Herrera) blamed Salvador for Juan’s death, and ever since, Salvador has lived a life of solitude and penitence, while Marcos has made a life for himself elsewhere, and their sister, Sabrina (Fonzi), has battled with mental health issues connected with the death of her younger brother. As Marcos does his best to persuade Salvador to change his mind, the truth about what happened when Juan was killed begins to surface, and secrets long buried come back to haunt the brothers, and send them down a path towards bloody conflict…

With family tragedies – and the inevitable dark secrets that seem to go with them at every turn – fuelling so many movies over the years, Argentinian thriller Black Snow has its work cut out for it before it’s even started. But while it doesn’t offer anything that’s particularly striking or original, it does have the benefit of its Patagonian setting, and a strong cast whose performances contribute greatly in making the viewer overlook how predictable it all is. It also takes great care through the various flashbacks that pepper the narrative, in revealing just enough about what happened the day Juan died, but without giving the viewer too much information to help them work out the why. Sharp-eyed and -eared viewers – or just those who have seen one too many of these kinds of thrillers – will be able to work out who did what, but this doesn’t spoil anything going forward, and the script – by director Hodara and Leonel D’Agostino – works hard to concentrate on the characters and their fractured relationships instead of making it all about the mystery surrounding Juan’s death.

Away from that central mystery, there is still much to keep viewers occupied, from the sad fate of Sabrina, her brother’s death having scarred her to the point where she’s retreated from the world, to the legacy that their father has bequeathed them all, one that encompasses unhappiness and emotional distance. Marcos initially seems to have succeeded in avoiding the effects of their father’s legacy but his marriage shows signs that this isn’t the case, and as the movie progresses and he fights to maintain his own fragile equilibrium, whenever Laura challenges him about his behaviour or what happened all that time ago, you can see the façade that he’s so carefully hidden behind for so long begin to slip. For his part, Salvador is reticent and unhappy with Marcos’ attempts at further marginalising their shared tragedy, and the idea of selling their childhood home fuels the anger he’s kept at bay in the intervening years. And when Marcos finally goes too far, both brothers’ actions have unforeseen consequences.

The snow-covered mountains of Patagonia serve as an effective backdrop for the icy interactions between Marcos and Salvador, and the wintry weather also helps to highlight the simmering emotions that both brothers are trying to keep in check. (That said, a scene where Marcos’ and Laura’s car ends up stuck in a snowdrift, and they remain there until nightfall, sees a mistral-like wind suddenly spring up, and then just as quickly disappear once they reach safety.) It’s all shot by DoP Arnau Valls Colomer with a view to increasing the sense of isolation that these characters are experiencing, both within themselves, and as a result of where they are. Hodara takes care to make sure all this isn’t shown in a way that could be construed as heavy-handed, and as he teases out the various strands of the narrative, the overall effect is maintained and built on until those same strands are pulled together into an ending that offers both closure and ambiguity.

The final shot may have some viewers feeling that they’ve had the rug pulled out from under them, but there are clues that support the ending, and in terms of the narrative and what’s gone before, there’s a psychological underpinning that works well in supporting it. It’s also a moment that leaves you wanting to see what happens next, something that doesn’t always happen in this type of thriller, and if there is to be a sequel of some sort (though it’s unlikely), and if Hodara and his very talented cast do return, then the story really needs to be locked in before everyone’s on board. On the evidence here, though, the cast would be the least of Hodara’s worries. Darín, as usual, gives a terrific, detailed performance of a man living under a terrible shadow, but who is still able to retain an innate dignity despite what he’s done (which isn’t as straightforward as it seems). As his unwanted nemesis, Sbaraglia exudes a callous disregard for others that shows Marcos is more self-serving than he would ever admit, or want others to realise, and it’s in his scenes with Costa that this becomes more and more evident. Rounding out the main cast, Costa too is good in a role that seems like it’s going to be yet another “female character ignored by the plot” arrangement, but Laura proves integral to said plot, and Costa makes her determined and not at all vulnerable – which is a nice change.

The pace of the movie is measured, with the aforementioned flashbacks layered into the narrative at appropriate points, and the tone of the movie is suitably dark and gloomy, infused as it is by references to fratricide, mental illness, abuse, and emotional pessimism. It’s not a cheerful, sanguine movie by any means, but it tells its story in a way that maintains interest and keeps its central mystery exactly that – a mystery – until the final fifteen minutes. There are times when the material feels a little strained, and Hodara and D’Agostino seem to have painted themselves into a corner in terms of allowing the story to unfold organically, but these instances don’t hinder the movie too much even though they are noticeable, and the story is strong enough to press on without suffering any “ill effects”. A compelling thriller then, and one that has more than enough going on to attract even the most casual of viewers.

Rating: 8/10 – a neat psychological mystery that doesn’t feel like it’s trying to trick the viewer or string them along until a big twist is revealed, Black Snow is a confident, darkly agreeable movie that works hard to make its characters credible and their story more believable still; another winner from South America, and further evidence that movies from that part of the world deserve a wider platform on which to shine.

NOTE: The trailer below doesn’t have English subtitles, but it does enough without them to give you a good idea of what the movie is about, and its themes.