That Oriol Paulo is an expert fabricator of twisting, turning plotlines is well known to aficionados of Spanish cinema — as it is in China, where Paulo’s last, 2016’s The Invisible Guest, grossed an astonishing $25 million, making it Spain’s biggest offshore hit of the following year. Mirage, the head-spinning tale of a mother and child who are separated across time, delivers more of the same, with some time travel thrown riskily into the mix.
A rare Spanish incursion into sci-fi, Mirage has a great deal of satisfying complexity but little depth, and its dazzling, intricate machinery is always visible. But it still makes for a fun ride on a highly calibrated roller coaster. As has become customary, Mirage is likely to deliver its biggest box office rewards offshore.
Very smart, but lacking heart.
It is 1989, at the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall, during a storm. Nico (Julio Bohigas), a kid who enjoys videoing himself playing songs on the guitar, hears noises from next door and investigates. On doing so, he finds the dead body of the wife of his neighbor Prieto (Javier Gutierrez), who’s standing over the body with a knife. Nico runs, but in doing so is hit by a truck and apparently killed.
Twenty-five years later, nurse Vera (Adriana Ugarte, most familiar to international audiences from Almodovar’s Julieta), having abandoned a potentially brilliant career as a neurosurgeon, has recently moved into Nico’s house along with husband David (Alvaro Morte) and baby daughter Gloria (Luna Fulgencio). One night, during a replica of the 1989 storm, Vera finds a TV in a closet and sees Nico is on it, talking to her from 25 years earlier. Vera will now get the chance to change history and save Nico’s life.
However, on waking in the hospital where she works, Vera finds that her apparently perfect existence has taken a different, Borges-like path. Now living in an unrecognizable reality, she is indeed the neurosurgeon she never became, David is married to Ursula (Aina Clotet), and Prieto the murderer is happily married to Clara (Nora Navas). And, most important, little Gloria has disappeared altogether from Vera’s life, because apparently she’s never been born.
Vera will spend most of the remainder of the film stumbling desperately around in this alternative reality, trying to make sense of it all, to recover Gloria, and also to solve the mystery of how the killer Prieto is free. (The viewer may be surprised that Vera has energy to do all this, and indeed the time, because she also learns that the whole thing has be sorted out within 72 hours, before the storm ends.) Along the way she will encounter a good-looking but bland cop, Inspector Leyra (Chino Darin), and a whole bunch of other characters, among them a police inspector played by Ana Wagener, from The Invisible Guest, and Belen Rueda (a Paulo regular and perhaps the queen of Spanish cinema’s suffering mothers, known for her role in The Orphanage) as the writer who explains to Vera how all this weird time and space stuff might be happening.
Mirage is not afraid to wear its influences on its sleeve, most notably Gregory Hoblit’s 2000 Dennis Quaid starrer Frequency and (of course) Back to the Future. Buffs will enjoy picking up the multiple film refs even as they seize upon the many plot details that will lead them to a final twist that some will find too obvious, which is Paulo’s problem here, as it is in his earlier work.
But what Mirage lacks in canniness it makes up for in ambition. The film can’t be pinned down to merely one or two genres: Not only sci-fi, but also noir, family drama and historical drama are present, correct and under control. The result is either going to be a god-awful mess or an intriguing, high-speed ride, and Paolo (along with co-scripter Lara Sendim) mostly provides the latter. This is the kind of movie that will have audiences putting together the dramatic jigsaw as they leave the cinema, but after they’ve done so they’ll find that most of it locks neatly into place. Though obviously not credible in terms of life, it does work in terms of its own machinery (Paolo, not for the first time, includes close-ups of a precision-engineered timepiece, aware that his scripts are millimetrically designed).
What we don’t yet get from Paulo is the human touch, at least not at the film’s heart, where it matters most. The reliable Ugarte does the best work she can as a woman who has painfully lost some memories but retained others, but the script insists on buffeting her madly from one unlikely scenario to another. It’s all she can do to keep it credible, let alone touching — which is what you might hope for from a movie dealing with the separation of a mother and child, however weird the circumstances. If Mirage is credible at all, it’s indeed down to Ugarte, but a couple of twists fewer and a judicious slowing down of the pace at a couple of points could have taken her performance, and the film, to a whole other level.
At the level of character, it’s lower down the cast list that the rewards are to be had, particularly from Gutierrez, whose appearance is practically a guarantee of a project’s value, and from Navas as his character’s lover. Darin, on the other hand, looks like a piece of wood amongst all the highly polished chrome. DP Xavi Gimenez casts a blue-gray pall over events, appropriately suggesting a reality in which not everything is visible. The Spanish title translates as the altogether more appropriate and evocative Before the Storm.
Production companies: Atresmedia Cine, Colose Producciones, Mirage Studio, Think Studio
Cast: Adriana Ugarte, Chino Darin, Javier Gutierrez, Alvaro Morte, Nora Navas, Miquel Fernandez, Clara Segura, Mima Riera, Aina Clotet, Julio Bohigas, Ana Wagener, Belen Rueda, Luna Fulgencio
Director: Oriol Paulo
Screenwriters: Oriol Paulo, Lara Sendim
Producers: Mercedes Gamero, Mikel Lejarza, Eneko Lizarraga, Jesus Ulled Nadal
Executive producers: Sandra Hermida, Laura Rubirola
Director of photography: Xavi Gimenez
Art director: Jaime Anduiza
Costume designer: Anna Aguila
Editor: Jaume Martí
Composer: Fernando Velazquez
Casting directors: Eva Leira, Yolanda Serrano