Mercedes (Mayella Lloclla) is an orphan who comes to work as a maid for the lonely, widowed Silvia (Vanessa Saba), who lives all by herself in a huge, rundown house. While there, she catches the eye of Jaime (Manuel Gold, an actor known for comedic roles, here playing it mostly straight), a backpacker earning money as a handyman. Unknown to both of them, however, is that the whole thing is a plan hatched by Silvia to get Mercedes pregnant and claim her baby as her own, at all costs.
That's the plot behind El Vientre, the second film from Daniel Rodríguez Risco, after 2008 drama The Watercolorist. It's the first Peruvian release of the year and also this country's first attempt at a psychological thriller.
Genre movies are not common in Peru; it wasn't until the success of the found footage horror film Cementerio General in 2013 that directors started looking to this type of material to reach a wider audience. Local filmmakers are now catching up with the sorts of films that have been made for years now.
Anyone well versed in thrillers about captivity (Misery and Inside being just two examples) will be able to recognize a lot of the story beats in El Vientre. For example, there's the lovestruck Jaime's inevitable fate, and that of his uncle Miguel (Veteran actor Gianfranco Brero in a quick cameo), who shows up at one point looking for him. The movie follows a lot of genre tropes, most of which are easy to predict.
However, a familiar premise can still work well if done right, and Rodríguez Risco shows plenty of skill behind the camera. Forgoing cheap shocks and gore, the director is leisurely in his approach, letting the story play out at its own pace. His is almost a classical style of filmmaking, one where creating an atmosphere and building suspense is of top priority. In this case, the nearly abandoned house where the action takes place is suitably ominous.
This is essentially a battle of wits between the naïve, innocent Mercedes and her unpredictable captor, and both actresses are more than up to the task. Vanessa Saba, a veteran of both stage and screen, slides effortlessly into the role of Silvia, creating a character so intense and unhinged, she easily joins the ranks of memorable female villains such as Kathy Bates in the aforementioned Misery, Jennifer Jason Leigh in Single White Female and Rebecca de Mornay in The Hand That Rocks The Cradle, among others. Young Lloclla, meanwhile, more than holds her own against her co-star.
El Vientre sticks very closely to the trappings of the thriller genre and it might prove a bit predictable for seasoned viewers, but it's still a well-made and respectable effort. The Peruvian film industry needs more movies like these in order to win over elusive audiences and earn a much-deserved place in local theaters, and Rodríguez Risco's sophomore film is a good step in the right direction.
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