The Condemned is the kind of supernatural thriller in which we’re led to believe that the central conflict could have been avoided with a simple declaration of the truth. But then we’re punched straight in the gut with a twist ending, and although the concept of truth is still very much in play, we discover that it’s not as simple as being provided with an explanation. It’s a matter of personal truth – or, to say the same thing in a different way, of self deception. Sometimes, we see only what we want to see. Sometimes, we force ourselves into it, be it out of anger, guilt, or a refusal to accept responsibility. Sometimes, there are consequences to our actions. While we’re genuinely not aware of all of our actions, there are others we have willed ourselves into overlooking, if not altogether forgetting about.
I grant you, most of this is not made apparent for much of the film. In fact, it wasn’t until I reached the twist, which is thrown at us five minutes before the film ends, that I began to understand what the filmmakers were trying to say. It doesn’t help that, although cleverly placed, the twist is highly implausible and raises far more questions than it answers. It necessitates that the audience go back and rethink every detail of almost every scene, from the editing to the camera angles to the dialogue; director/co-writer Roberto Buso-Garcia tries to lend a hand by actually replaying certain scenes, some lifted directly from earlier in the film, others re-edited to show a change in perspective. He doesn’t quite succeed, in large part because we’re at a loss to account for how such a thing could be possible.
Everything leading up to the twist plays like a typical ghost story, where truths are revealed not through direct statements but through cryptic occurrences of paranormal activity doled out over an extended period of time. Naturally, all occurrences act as clues. We get the standard fare: The sounds of laughing children echoing down dark hallways; lights and faucets that turn on by themselves; objects that shake and fall without being touched; doors that open and close on their own; the sudden playing of filmed footage that reveals dread secrets. And, of course, there are also specific characters in the mortal realm who know the whole truth yet choose to reveal it in agonizing increments. We don’t understand why until the end, and even then, we’re forced to question the likelihood of such an approach working.
In the film, a driven young woman named Ana Puttnam (Cristina Rodlo) wants to restore the reputation of her American father, a once-famous doctor, by converting her ancestral mansion in Rosales, Puerto Rico into a museum honoring his achievements in cancer research. Rosales is not only where her father opened his first free clinic over forty years earlier, it’s also where he met and married her mother, who served as his nurse. Her mother is now dead. Her dying father, Michael (Axel Anderson), who she has brought with her to Rosales, spends most of the film in a vegetative state, lying in bed hooked up to a heart monitor. Each member of the mansion’s staff seems to know more than they’re letting on. This is especially true of the caretaker, Cipriano (Rene Monclova), who has nothing but kind things to say about Ana’s mother.
Ana tries to get the support of the locals, funereal elderlies incapable of smiling, by inviting them to a Christmas party. It’s held in a ballroom where a tiered beaded chandelier stretches from floor to ceiling. Of the guests that arrive, most of them say nothing. Only one, a blind old woman named Doña Clara (Luz Odilea Font), has the guts to say that neither Ana nor her father are welcome in Rosales. Indeed, whenever Ana visits the city, it seems almost entirely devoid of life, as if the locals were intentionally avoiding her. Doña Clara, whose has enshrined a section of her home with dozens of lit candles, has a bigger part to play than it might initially seem, and of that, I will say no more. Meanwhile, strange things have been happening in Ana’s house. Despite her initial skepticism, she comes to believe that her mother’s spirit haunts the walls, and that she’s trying to reveal secrets from the past.
Although there’s no way to foresee the aforementioned twist (unless you’re blessed with inhuman intuition skills), there are other plot secrets that are very predictable, especially in regards to the nature of Michael’s work and his past presence in Rosales. There are admirable aspects to The Condemned. I was especially taken with the atmosphere. Garcia doesn’t beat us over the head with a slew of popout scares, nor does he resort to cheap gimmicks like nudity, excessive gore, or gratuitous violence; he creates a sense of dread by letting the tension build. Having said that, I fear the twist was too manufactured for its own good. I’m also not entirely convinced that the message needed to be delivered in this particular way. The sins of the past and the refusal to acknowledge them are compelling ideas, but a ghost story doesn’t seem like the ideal way to explore them.
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