I knew I wasn’t going completely mad. I got confused with The Fury of a Patient Man, thinking that was directed by the same person as Marshland. It’s actually Smoke and Mirrors, Alberto Rodríguez’s latest movie. I feel much better now. Especially because his latest every bit lives up to the promise of Marshland.
Straight out of the school of ‘you can’t make it up’, this one follows Francisco ‘Paco’ Paesa (Eduard Fernandez), a freelance Spanish secret agent who, rather foolishly, doesn’t get paid upfront. Having been stiffed by the government, Paco pretty much looses everything, then one day Luis Roldan (Carlos Santos) appears in his ‘office’. Roldan it turns out is the none too clean former national police commissioner. And he has a small fortune that he has embezzled from the state. A small fortune that he can no longer hide and is none too keen to give back. So, Paco and his right hand man Jesus Camoes (Jose Coronado) - a commercial airline pilot and also the story’s narrator - hatch a labyrinthine plan to spirit the ex-commissioner and his wealth away.
The opening narration sets the tone well when we are informed that this is a true story and ‘Like all true stories, it contains a few lies.’ Though when things are this murky, it’s impossible to tell who is lying to who and when. Which is why this movie is just so much damn fun. At no point, right up until the closing credits, are we ever sure if Paco is a sly genius or just a chancer pushing his luck for possibly the last time.
Fernandez plays this perfectly as Paco. He has all the money, then loses it all and is memorably rumbled at a business meeting when he attempts to pass himself off as a successful businessman. His steady climb back to the top is entirely convincing and Fernandez’s understated, almost hangdog performance is utterly convincing. Coronado’s Camoes is the perfect foil. Utterly respectable and, we are informed near the start, only in it for the excitement, the two’s relationship is murky but always understandable.
Spanish audiences will be able to read a great deal more into the corruption angle for this superb thriller but even with my poor knowledge of recent Spanish history, I could easily see the layers that Rodríguez and co-writer Rafael Cobos weave in from real life events. Astonishingly, Paco is not a fictional character (though inevitably some of what is put on screen is very much so), adding an extra element to the storytelling.
Smoke and Mirrors is a fabulous followup for Rodríguez. His assured storytelling, restrained direction and fanatical interest in the corruption coursing through his country make this an absolutely riveting thriller.