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Friday, April 21, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Movie Review

"Take My Eyes": A wrenching, riveting look at an abusive marriage

Special to The Seattle Times

"You don't know what you've got 'til it's gone."

That Joni Mitchell lyric kept ringing in my head as I watched "Take My Eyes," an exceptional, multi-award-winning Spanish drama that tackles a difficult subject — abusive marriage — and turns Mitchell's lyric into an ironic warning to spouse-beaters everywhere.

Granted, some husbands are victims, but marriages like the one between Pilar (Laia Marull) and Antonio (Luis Tosar) are statistically far more common. After nine years of riding a marital roller-coaster of mutual devotion punctuated by manipulative threats and sudden beatings, Pilar escapes into the night with her 7-year-old son, seeking sanctuary in the home of her sister. Within seconds, Antonio is outside, begging forgiveness and promising to change while huffing and puffing like a Big Bad Wolf.

Movie review 3.5 stars


Showtimes and trailer

"Take My Eyes," with Laia Marull, Luis Tosar. Directed by Iciar Bollain, from a screenplay by Bollain and Alicia Luna. 106 minutes. Not rated; for mature audiences (contains nudity, language, adult themes). In Spanish, with English subtitles. Varsity, Everett Mall Cinemas.

But where "Raging Bull" showed us a primitive brute beating his wife out of Neanderthal impulse, director Iciar Bollain (working from a screenplay she co-wrote with Alicia Luna) takes her extraordinary actors into a more universal realm of marital erosion, almost unfathomable in its emotional complexity.

Why would a good wife and mother stay with a man like Antonio? What compels Antonio's abusive behavior? Answers vary from couple to couple, but "Take My Eyes" makes twisted sense under these circumstances, with these characters. And while Bollain wisely refrains from pat solutions, we learn enough about Pilar and Antonio to appreciate, if not fully understand, that true love lies at the heart of their misery. It's mutated into a kind of emotional terrorism, but it's still love.

There's hope when Antonio attends group therapy for abusive husbands, keeping a journal to examine his conflicting emotions. He's the volatile product of his own insecurities; despite her absolute fidelity, Pilar can't even volunteer as an art-gallery guide without provoking Antonio's irrational suspicions of an extramarital affair. She lovingly clings to the hope that he'll change. Their lovemaking is a form of passionate surrender (says Pilar in the film's most intimate scene, "Take my legs, my arms, my breasts ... take my eyes"), but it's merely a lull between storms.

In charting this treacherous territory, Bollain maintains pitch-perfect focus on developments that can't be predicted. Family, friends, work and even physical location (the walled city of Toledo) emphasize a sense of entrapment in a perpetual cycle of abuse and apology.

"Take My Eyes" won the 2004 Goya (Spain's Oscar) for best film, director, actor, actress and screenplay. Tosar and Marull received best actor and first-runner-up best actress at the 2004 Seattle International Film Festival.

Approaching potentially unpleasant subject matter with humor, intelligence and deep compassion for its flawed yet infinitely human characters, "Take My Eyes" is almost certain to rank as one of the year's best films.

Jeff Shannon: j.sh@verizon.net

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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