How National Trauma Shaped Alejandro Amenabar’s ‘Tesis’
A young woman – battered, disorientated, and disconsolate – is tied to a chair, her hands bound behind her back with rough lengths of frayed hemp. A small, dated camcorder sits on a tripod a few meters in front of her, the red recording light blinking in dour, violent recitation. The woman sighs, gathers whatever composure she can, and says, “My name is Ángela. They’re going to kill me.”
Tesis, otherwise known as Thesis to English-speaking audiences, is the acclaimed-but-criminally-unseen 1996 Spanish thriller helmed by a pre-Hollywood Alejandro Amenábar. The film opens with an atypical content advisory: “WARNING,” the screen tells us, “the following scenes may hurt the viewer’s sensibility.” Horror films, by design and spurred by audience expectations, often subvert conventional standards of acceptable content, though few open with precursory warnings. The inherent framework of the genre is often telling enough for audience members.
Tesis, though, is an innovative horror film, conceived by an auteur of the genre. It follows Ángela Márquez (Ana Torrent) as a young film student who discovers a snuff movie where a classmate of hers is tortured to death. Toward the conclusion, Ángela learns that Bosco, a filmmaker peer, is responsible for the killings. Feminist underpinnings drive the narrative as she eschews traditional outlets – male-dominated public spheres such as the police and university administration – to inquire into the killing on her own.
Only a handful of reviews exist for Tesis on sites like RottenTomatoes and Metacritic, in part because its release predated the mega-aggregate’s launch in 1998. This might also be because the movie has yet to find a dedicated audience since its initial theatrical and home video runs. Tesis did not win seven Goya Awards (Spain’s premier national film awards) for nothing, however, because not only is it a worthwhile Hitchcockian slasher in its own right, it’s also an exceptional reflection on Spain’s history of violence against women, Francisco Franco’s regime, and the horror genre’s longstanding impulse to victimize women.
Violence Against Women
Set in 1996, twenty-one years after the death of militaristic dictator Francisco Franco and the collapse of his autocratic regime, the narrative of Tesis is shaped and constrained by the metamorphosis of the public and private sphere, particularly for women, and the historical context of antecedent global initiatives for gender equality. For instance, in 1995, The United Nations held the first-ever Fourth World Conference on Women, “fourth world” being a subpopulation within any given society whose identity and regional habitation manifests in severe political and economic disadvantages. The United Nations determined, for this specific conference, that women occupied this “fourth world” given political and sociocultural ordinances and pressures that subordinated them, even within the parameters of an ostensibly progressive, first-world country.
Most cultures, particularly in the West, have a morbid fascination with violence, but why is that more desirable, and more lucrative, when the violence is against women? Tesis endeavors to answer that question as it explores the dichotomy between female violence and the untold differences between the private and public sphere. For instance, the subject of the first violent video Ángela finds while writing her thesis on audiovisual violence and family is Vanessa, a student at Ángela’s university who went missing two years earlier. While Ángela is at first reticent to watch the film – listening only to its sound – she is directly encouraged by her classmate, Chema (Fele Martínez), and later indirectly by her thesis advisor, Professor Castro (Xabier Elorriaga), to watch the movie. The moral here is the requisite necessity of violence and spectatorial participation in the aberrant torture of women.
Indeed, Spain’s contemporary history of gendered violence began during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). Francisco Franco led Nationalist forces in overthrowing the Second Spanish Republic during the war, and soon after, appointed himself dictator, beginning the decades-long period known as the Francoist dictatorship. During that time, both during and after the war, sexual violence against women was common among members of Franco’s Nationalist forces. Women of all ages and occupations were raped, tortured, and killed to instill terror among the local populaces. The violence against them was often committed in public spheres (e.g. cemeteries and hospitals), and later rendered as some kind of perverse tyrannical agitprop.
Most distressing, as is the case with women’s history on a global scale, is how little of this violence was ever recorded, ever committed to some written record. The quantification of their pain and deaths were erased, reduced to scattershot anecdotes and piecemeal paper trails.
There is, then, an argument to make that Vanessa’s death being committed to film serves some unfortunate moral imperative whereby the violence against her is memorialized and, thus, part of recorded history – Ángela’s impelling force to uncover the truth.
Violence in Media
Tesis is a carefully manufactured narrative that seeks to dismantle the perpetual storification of violence against women. When the media’s influence on gendered violence is ignored or unquestioned – when considerable evidence is conflated with unfounded, illegitimate ideologies – the resounding myths preserve dour, dangerous circumstances, and experts in the field are barred from making substantial headway. As a singular aspect, viewed through a framework of violent media effects, the presentations and depictions of violence in horror texts are veritably problematic, specifically frequent depictions of women in extended states of torture. The narratives reinforce antiquated impressions of women as victims, and these unfounded gender schemas often serve to promulgate violent and dismissive attitudes toward women.
Tesis is, in most every sense, a microcosmic interrogation of popular media’s role in the burgeoning complacency toward violence against women. The snuff films and violent deaths in the narrative are representative of the larger, historical media ecosystem whereby violence against women is commercialized and commodified. Violence against women is very much a part of the universal narrative, and Tesis, though moderately unknown, envisages the requisite need to analyze it narratively and to interrogate and question the explicit hegemony and reverence for problematic, violent ideals.
Certainly, horror films are not nearly as egregious as Franco’s regime, yet the same subtle inclination to gain ascendancy over women and hegemonize their attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors still permeate even the most renowned of horror films. When young women drink or have sex and are soon thereafter killed, how else can that be interpreted other than as a tacitly threatening command for women to, quite frankly, behave themselves or else?
Tesis, by and large, is a filmic reckoning for Spain’s long history of violence toward women. Indeed, while some might quail at the notion of a man (Alejandro Amenábar) being at the helm of such an endeavor, it is precisely men who need to reckon with the country’s longstanding sins and systemic subjugation of women. Much like the fundamental ailments that plague the United States, the men of Spain – fathers and soldiers, sons and brothers – are the ones who reaped the bounties of sin, whether they were directly responsible for them or not. Ángela was every modern woman grappling with the crimes and wickedness of her homeland’s past, and in Tesis, that journey through pain and later hope, makes for an exceptionally compelling watch.
Though Tesis ends with the suggestion that the news media will be airing footage of the snuff films – the final step in the commercialization of violence against women – there is nonetheless the hopeful suggestion that by seeing it, by bearing witness to this facet of historical pain, change can, and will occur. However slowly, change will happen.