Spanish Film Fest Review: May God Save Us

In recent years Spain has produced some excellent crime thrillers. May God Save Us can rightly claim to be up there with the best of them.

Set in Madrid in the middle of the 2011 summer, there is already a stifling tension in the air. Amid the searing heat, the economic crisis is at its worst, and now the murder of an elderly woman could signal the beginnings of a serial killer at large. At least according to inspector Luis Velarde (Antonio de la Torre). He’s quite an unusual character. Extremely introverted and with a pronounced stutter, he’s very gifted at gleaning clues from crime scenes. As a rule, he starts by lying in the same position as the corpse.

When police first arrive at the crime scene at the film’s start, they believe it to be a bungled theft. An elderly woman has been beaten and killed at the door to her apartment. But Velarde sees past the surface. Nothing was stolen and on closer inspection he deduces that the elderly woman was raped.

For the most part Velarde lets his partner, Inspector Javier Alfaro (Roberto Álamo), do the talking. He’s brash and blokey, and unfortunately has anger management issues. The two of them have a hard time convincing their superiors that there’s anything ominous about this murder. And since the Pope is about to visit Madrid, the last thing they want is a PR nightmare like a sex offender on the loose.

But of course, that’s exactly what they have on their hands. Once the killer gets a taste for it, the murders become more violent and more frequent.

This is a huge departure for writer director Rodrigo Sorogoyen, whose last film Stockholm, was an intimate romance. His focus is on the psychological profile of the assailant, and also that of the two detectives who are deeply flawed in their own way.

As such, he has produced an extremely well crafted story with three fascinating characters at its centre. For a long time we don’t know who the assailant is, but when the revelation comes, rather than extinguish the mystery, the narrative actually becomes more compelling.

There is plenty of skill displayed on the tech side too. The sound design is highly effective, Olivier Arson’s score adds to the tension and Alex de Pablo’s cinematography has a real immediacy about it. One particular scene where the assailant has to jump over an apartment balcony is extraordinary. The camera goes over the balcony with him and stays alongside him as he falls. It’s quite a technical achievement.  

The performances are also exceptional. De la Torre puts a remarkably internalised spin on his trademark minimalist approach, while Álamo makes for a vividly threatening counterpoint. Álamo won Best Actor at this year’s Goyas, beating out De la Torre in the same category (albeit it for different film – The Fury of a Patient Man).

May God Save Us received a swag of other Goya nominations, including Best Film, Director, Screenplay and Supporting Actor for Javier Pereira’s subtly chilling performance. For my money this is the best Spanish film of the year, and therefore my pick of the Spanish Film Festival.  

✭✭✭✭1/2   

May God Save Us is currently screening at the Spanish Film Festival

Richard Leathem @dickiegee