“Penumbra” attempts to tease the audience with suggestions of mental illness, but don’t be fooled. A prologue sequence, which details an event the main character couldn’t possibly have any knowledge of, makes it abundantly clear that everything that happens is actually happening, and that whoever is involved has gone to great lengths to ensure the total silence of any potential witness. This is actually more damaging than it might first appear, as it calls into question sequences that stretch the limits of plausibility. The film has some good thrills and a surprisingly ample amount of character development, but by my sensibilities, a more ambiguous plot would have been much more satisfying. When the truth of a situation is open for debate, it forces us into actually thinking about scenes, images, and passages of dialogue.
I will not reveal what happens in the prologue, for it’s too deeply connected to what happens during the climax. Instead, I’ll begin with the story proper. We meet Marga (Cristina Brondo), a perpetually busy, borderline confrontational lawyer from Barcelona. She’s in Buenos Aires to close a deal regarding the rental of an apartment she and her sister inherited from their parents. In the building, she bumps into a man named Jorge (Berta Muñiz), who claims to be the real estate broker she’s scheduled to meet. He informs her that his client would like to bypass traditional procedures, mostly contracts and other assorted paperwork, and make the deal immediately. Marga’s resistance immediately lowers when Jorge goes on to say that his client is willing to pay four times the market value for the property.
This establishing sequence of events is intercut with a scene in which Marga is followed by a homeless man as she crosses the street to a minimart. We clearly hear him insulting her with a series of filthy names, and when he grabs her arm, she strikes back with a taser she just happens to be carrying in her purse. For good measure, she kicks him in the stomach one or two times once he’s down. When bystanders and a police officer intervene, he plays innocent and asserts that he only asked her for a few coins. Not only does everyone believe him, they ensure Marga that he’s a decent human being. In sheer frustration, Marga rants about the dregs of society blaming everyone but themselves for their problems. At that point, pretty much everyone thinks that she’s crazy. Indeed, her sanity will repeatedly be questioned by various characters in various ways.
Upon returning to the apartment building, she’s approached by one of the tenants, a chatty but accommodating older woman. Apart from the fact that her parents emigrated from Spain during their civil war, she tells Marga that it’s a strange day and it may have something to do with an impending solar eclipse. Marga isn’t all that interested; she’s has better things to do, not the least of which is continue making inflammatory business calls on her cell phone. She even works in time with her underachieving sister and the married man she’s having an affair with. When she returns to her apartment, other men and women have joined Jorge. They skulk around with expressions of deceit, although they continuously assure Marga that she isn’t seeing or hearing what she thinks she’s seeing or hearing. What, for example, is going on in the locked room adjacent to the kitchen? Peering through the keyhole, Marga sees what appears to be a sack of potatoes.
The story just kind of keeps building like this, and while I appreciate the craft and power of suspense, I have to wonder why writers/directors Adrian and Ramiro Garcia Bogliano felt the need to take as much time as they took. By the time the reality of the situation is finally revealed, at which point Marga is gagged and tied to a chair, only about ten minutes of the movie remains. Some of that time is spent on a plot twist that’s paradoxically appropriate and unconvincing. Because the prologue effectively quells any doubts we might develop regarding Marga’s state of mind, we’re left to wonder how certain events could have possibly taken place given the chronology and who in all had a part to play. The ending seemed to suggest the involvement of the entire city, which, even for a thriller of this sort, is a bit farfetched.
But now I’m just being annoyingly vague. While “Penumbra” shows an appreciation and understanding of craft, I’m hard pressed to say that the filmmakers really knew what they wanted to say. I’m pretty sure we’ve all heard the one about how it’s not what you think in your head but what you feel in your heart, and I think that’s a fair assessment of this film. It’s competently made, and it has some wonderfully tense moments, but it lacks conviction. If one were to argue in defense of supernatural overtones, which would fit accordingly with the film’s examination of the occult, perhaps then the plot could be explained. But in my eyes, it wouldn’t fly. That’s because, in spite of the strange events that kick start the final scene, I saw no evidence that anything otherworldly could have happened. The only logical explanation is an illogical occurrence that requires suspension of disbelief.