Saturday, April 02, 2016

El Hipnotizador: A Lone Mesmerist Comes to Town

They say nobody can be hypnotized to commit a crime that violates their bedrock sense of morality. Of course, that principle should not present a lot of obstacles for mesmerist Natalio Arenas in this murky, noirish town. He will also use his powers to help people, even though the truths he unveils are often bitterly harsh. Arenas will put a lot of subjects to sleep, but ironically, some sort of curse keeps him from slumbering himself. Sanity and reality are not always what they seem in El Hipnotizador (trailer here), which premiered on HBO Latino last night.

If Guy Maddin were to adapt The Prestige roughly sometime in the 1930s in an ambiguously unplaceable Brazilian, Uruguayan, or Argentine city, it would look incredible—and perhaps not so very different from El Hipnotizador. We know from the prologue Arenas can use his skills like a lethal weapon, but in the first two episodes, he mostly employs them to bring peace to troubled minds—and to make a little money.

As the premiere episode commences, Arenas is due to open as part of the low rent vaudeville running at the Rex Theatre. Of course, Arenas is the real deal, but the fortune teller also might be partially legit as well. Naturally, they have showgirls too, but to the credit of director Alex Gabassi, they are not used as naked window dressing—at least not yet.

Clearly, it is not just the honor of performing at the Rex that has brought Arenas to this highly picturesque but vaguely oppressive city. It is also home to Darek, the shadowy figure responsible for Arenas’ preternatural insomnia. However, neither man seems eager to hasten a showdown in the early going. In fact, Arenas will get as comfortable as he ever gets at the Las Violetas Hotel, where Salinero the desk clerk and Anita the maid provide sympathetic assistance.

While it is hard to render a conclusive judgment from two out eight episodes, the series’ spectacular visual style is already incontrovertibly established. Fans of weird urban fantasy will absolutely flip out over Hipnotizador. It deserves to be a breakout hit solely for the work of cinematographer Pedro Luque and the art and design team.

As a bonus, the cast is also quite accomplished. Leonardo Sbaraglia steadily reels in viewers as the quiet but conspicuously haunted Arenas, pulling us into deeper and deeper levels of fascination with the sad-eyed antihero. (Uruguayan) Cesar Troncoso’s Salinero and (Brazilian) Bianca Comparato’s Anita nicely hint at their potential romantic chemistry while also developing slightly awed relationships with Sbaraglia’s Arenas. As Darek, Chico Díaz appears to have a fine affinity for scheming and scenery chewing, while second episode guest star Gero Camilo is especially notable as Calambó, a fellow hotel guest who psychologically and metaphysically loses a day.

Fans of Jorge Luis Borges and Arturo Ripstein should be delighted with Hipnotizador, but it is actually much more audience-accessible and genre-friendly than their iconic work. It definitely sets the hook early. Recommended for fans of the surreal and the noir, El Hipnotizador will be available on HBO Latino, HBO On Demand, HBO Go, and HBO Now.