Like the most eye-catching Caravaggio paintings, Esteban Crespo’s Amar emphasizes the obscene and the sublime, the bad and the beautiful. It’s a Spanish love story, one that’s driven by intimacy and the overwhelming energy that can manipulate rational thinking. There’s a 10-minute, sex-themed introduction with no nudity, and the main characters don’t philosophize about the meaning of love. Amar is passionate without being pretentious.
In the beginning, there is light — striking, effervescent light. On her birthday, former village girl Laura (María Pedraza) meets up with her city boyfriend, Carlos (Pol Monen), who brings a surprise gift; a sex toy that’s intended to spice up their romance. In the moment, Laura and Carlos trust each other; they connect. After an unexpected visitor briefly disrupts the experience, the couple stays committed. It’s a powerful opening sequence, both tasteful and telling. But when Laura discovers some unfortunate bathroom art at school, a secret becomes common knowledge amongst friends. And when her divorced mother cheats with her ex-husband, the concept of “loving” takes over the girl’s thoughts. Oh, and Laura might be pregnant, too. She seems content, and her friends appear more curious than concerned.
Written by the Oscar-nominated Crespo (Aquel no era yo, 2013) and Mario Fernandez Alonso, Amar succeeds through first-rate acting and cinematography, supported by the director’s subtle insinuations. This is crucial for character intent. Carlos’ actions raise some important questions, but there’s more to the story, evidenced by references to Laura’s past. She boasts to friends about an unknown act (“something you couldn’t imagine”) and Carlos delivers a passing jab when Laura questions his manhood. One definitive act drives the narrative, but the dialogue suggests that Amar is more focused on psychology and projections than raw sexuality.
Carlos, a talented artist turned watchmaker apprentice (albeit briefly), seems like the prototypical “tortured soul,” but he’s actually a complex individual. With Laura, he’s mostly calm and focused. In public, however, Carlos often suffers from self-doubt, which can easily support pre-existing social perceptions. Laura’s friends gossip about Carlos and his eccentricities, yet Amar doesn’t focus on whether they’re right or wrong; it’s about whether Carlos is right for Laura, and vice versa. The external noise doesn’t matter. Loving does.
In her feature film debut, Pedraza dominates every scene. Her non-verbal nuances stand out, along with how she engages with those around her. At school, Laura remains cautious, often framed in wide shots amongst others. In private, she’s warm and affectionate, both a motherly figure and madonna. Cinematographers Ángel Amorós and Vinay Vadluru stage Pedraza immaculately, most notably in the bookend sequences. Despite the character’s charisma, her friends are more jovial and animated, perhaps representing the woman Laura wants to be. She’s idealistic but lives spontaneously — for Carlos, played consistently somber by Monen, that’s definitely a red flag. But he’s no fool, even if he’s taken for one. Carlos understands Laura; he knows there’s a diamond in the rough. But neither characters have accepted the whole truth about one another. They need to live and learn, sink or swim. With Amar, director Crespo reminds that unrequited love, and the unknown, can feel absolutely crushing.
Amar shifts gears whenever characters speak matter-of-factly. This is huge plus, as it provides various perspectives and keeps the viewer guessing. Laura and Carlos can’t speak something into existence, but they can push loved ones away by speaking too much, and with little regard for personal insecurities. That’s what makes Crespo’s film so intriguing: effective communication vs. general assumptions. Laura and Carlos connect on a physical level and communicate efficiently, with breathy sound design accentuating their chemistry in the most passionate moments. But perhaps that’s not the sound of love. Maybe it’s the sound of two teenagers, wearing gas masks, holding onto each other for dear life, scared of their own independence. Different strokes for different folks.
Q.V. Hough (@qvhough) is a freelance writer and the Founding Editor of Vague Visages. In 2004, he graduated from Concordia College (Moorhead, MN) with bachelor degrees in Communication-Mass Media and History. From 2006 to 2012, Quinn lived in Hollywood, California and now resides in Fargo, North Dakota.