Cinema Signal:

Crime Scene & Evidence Photographer's Guide

. "Camera Obscura"

This suspenseful, psychological thriller made on a modest budget is a treat of originality in cinematic storytelling and will have you going from start to finish. What's more, it employs underused and new talent on both sides of the camera beginning with writer-director Hamlet Sarkissian making his film debut. This ensemble may be working for scale but as filmmakers, they are a class act. So, what makes it so special?

The Los Angeles-set story revolves around Jimmy (Adam Trese), an art photographer, who takes a job with the LAPD as a police crime scene documenter in order to make a living and to support his exotically beautiful wife Maria (Ariadna Gil) in her endeavors as a ballet dancer. The trouble with Jimmy, though, is that he can't control his aesthetic impulses, even with corpses that met a violent death.

The first one to make note of his "feminine side" is Detective Flowers who immediately detects Jimmy's emotional reaction to the victims and crudely asks if he's homosexual. He and equally offensive partner Russo (V.J. Foster) are only too glad to turn the crime scene over to Jimmy to complete his recording of every angle.

But, this opportunity to be alone with the bodies produces a strange reaction in Jimmy. At first it seems that it's the artist in him that intrigues him so much about the subject matter. Then it becomes irrational, to the point that he rearranges a gangland style massacre into a surreal last supper tableau.

While the mania progresses, he becomes uncommunicative with Maria, leading her to get a job so that Jimmy, obviously disturbed in a way she can't fathom, can find other employment. But, he's none too happy when he discovers his rare, Spanish beauty dancing in a strip joint, a step that throws the marriage into turmoil.

At the same time, detective Flowers is getting more and more criminally crazed. When he invites Jimmy to join him and Russo in their crooked, high-paying sideline activities, it's clear that bringing Jimmy into it is a form of manipulation and control. But that's not the worst of it. The two detectives are maniacal enough to make the worst hard-case in the infamous Rampart Division scandal seem like scout leaders. The rope of control that Flowers weaves around Jimmy gets tauter and ever more threatening as we discover just how sociopathic the guy is.

Adam Trese ("Polish Wedding", "Palookaville") makes the concept of madness brought about by an artist's exposure to death sympathetic, partly by maintaining his core human vulnerability. Even as he snorts a line in order to make a quick buck, he conveys the quality of an everyman getting in over his head with people who have no moral restraints.

Ariadna Gil ("Belle Epoque"), a lady with the facial structure to make a cover model die for, comes to American cinema from a long line of credits abroad. Her classy beauty is outdone only by a straightforward honesty in her portrayal. One senses that her emotional openness is the real person using her true nature with measured skill. The effect is endearing.

But, in this obscure film, another discovery is Cully Fredricksen whose psychotic cop comes close to that top we don't want go over. His bleak and bony features are used as expressive props for a portrait of lunatic dementia. Even his equally vile partner, played by another credible monster of immorality, V.J. Foster, is in his thrall. The fiendishness this guy gives off brings to mind the best of M. Emmet Walsh ("Blood Simple"), the most demonic of Anthony Hopkins ("Hannibal"), perhaps with a little less control over his psychopathia.

All of which attests to some astute casting from first-time director Sarkissian who tells his story in a style that, while not necessarily new and not without its risks, keeps it together with stimulating, sometimes startling effect. He is closely abetted by the textural work of cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos.

It's not only the camera that was obscura in the case of this film. It was made in 2000 and took all this time to get slated for release. Our feeling is that its worthiness is far ahead of the general level of the low budget-festival winning competition and that Fish Eye Films should receive a pat on the back for their savvy in recognizing a potential winner in the critical arena.

All involved deserve more attention than they've had. Their film is clearly one that set out to do something a little different and with the skill to keep us locked into the drama and our concern for the characters. The technical flash doesn't dilute those essentials and there's no overriding self-indulgence. Their movie generates suspense and deserves attention for that rarest of achievements, originality. An edgy thriller with its own take that took me on a road I never travelled.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Hey, Adam, that ain't a camera

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