The course of true love never did run smooth. Especially when you’re an impoverished immigrant dealing with casual racism and ingrained condescension as a matter of daily life. In Sebastián Cordero’s Rage, Latin American immigrants José María (Gustavo Sánchez Parra) and Rosa (Martina García) strike up a passionate affair in their adopted Spanish homeland, but everything seems stacked against their happiness. The object of lustful catcalls from the natives (who refer to her as “that Colombian girl that everyone wants to screw”), Rosa works as a maid for an elderly, conspicuously wealthy couple who don’t quite mistreat her so much as either ignore or patronize her. Meanwhile, her lover toils as a construction worker for a boss who continually reminds him that he’s “not worth shit here” while living in a tiny room with five other immigrants. Internalizing the European’s disdain for the Latin American, José María manifests this animosity as a pent-up rage that occasionally materializes in the form of violent action.
Although the film’s opening act is a tad blunt in its portrayal of the obstacles facing South American immigrants in Europe (is everyone in Spain a racist?), it’s also rather charming in its depiction of the first stirrings of young love, lingering on the post-coital couple in bed as they joke a little nervously about past lovers or observing the pair as they enjoy a bottle of wine and some music on the stereo. But when José María’s irrepressible anger and its inevitable consequences force the construction worker to go into exile, the film never overcomes the pair’s separation. As José María improbably hides out in the attic of the house where Rosa works, the focus shifts to the maid’s relationship with her employer’s extended family, while her lover can do little more than look on from the margins.
Essentially one long wait until the pair can at last be reunited, the film bogs down in endless shots of José María shrouded in the partial darkness of the attic, wearing an expression of vague concern while he gradually works up the courage to place a phone call to his lover from the house’s second phone line. Meanwhile, Cordero takes the opportunity to further skewer upper-class privilege, though he hardly uncovers any fresh revelations. The most obvious agent of oppression arrives in the person of the elderly couple’s failed-businessman son, a sinister fortysomething, complete with a scruffy beard, a leather jacket, and a taste for vodka, who immediately begins making aggressive passes at Rosa. Less baldly obvious are the blithe unconcern of the father toward the maid, whom he speaks about in her presence as if she were absent, and the maternalistic tone of the mother who, after Rosa announces that she’s pregnant, becomes overly solicitous, to the point of aggressively suggesting names for the unborn child.
Tragedy inevitably strikes, facilitating the now doomed reunion of the lovers. But whereas a film like Im Sang-soo’s current remake of The Housemaid, which treads roughly similar narrative ground, milks its plot developments for vibrantly hued sensation, making its own rather obvious points about social inequality into improbably compelling cinema, Cordero settles for a theoretically admirable, but aesthetically drab bit of understatement. If you haven’t got anything new to say, at least find an interesting way to say it. Unlike Im’s rather cutting piece of work, though, Rage is essentially a love story. But given that our two lovers barely know each other and that they’re separated by circumstance for the bulk of the film, their eventual reunion can only result in a weepy round of melodrama likely to hold far more meaning for the characters than it contains for their prospective audience.