There's a moment in the compelling Spanish drama "Seven Years" ("7 Años") where a character, backed into a corner by colleagues he'd once called family, ponders the health risks blasted across his pack of cigarettes and suggests that perhaps friends, too, should come with warning labels.
Harsh as it sounds, the rebuke makes sense in the context of this movie. If, as Hobbes advised, human life devoid of the rule of law would be nasty, brutish and short, this film provides the fictional conditions wherein that nature might flourish.
Challenging in subject matter but modest in production scope and with clear international appeal, "Seven Years" was a promising choice to mark Netflix's first original movie produced and filmed in Spain.
It premiered worldwide Oct. 28 in 190 countries on Netflix, a massive release for a small European movie, offering hope that the streaming service could provide an important new outlet for independent filmmakers in Spain and elsewhere struggling to find financing and exhibition platforms for their films.
Four equal partners in a stylish software firm in Madrid find they are under investigation for embezzling funds from their own company. Now they have hours to agree on which of them will take the fall for the others, spend seven years in prison and save the company.
The predicament is set up swiftly, and a mediator is brought in to help the foursome negotiate a solution. But first, we see the characters gather on their rooftop terrace for a last smoke, four heavy shadows looking out across the twinkling city lights and an impenetrable night sky.
It's a bittersweet final moment of freedom, the visual equivalent of a heavy sigh. And it’s the last breath of fresh air, suggestively smoke-infused, that they – or we, the viewers – will have before the action of the film returns to the calculatedly claustrophobic one-room setting of the firm's loft-style offices.
The Ethics of Survival
Marcel is the slick CEO with the French-Canadian wife and the privileged background. Carlos is the handsome, potentially vacuous playboy who keeps the clients happy. Their sharp accountant, Vero, is the sole female partner who runs a hotel business on the side. Luis, the insomniac programmer with substance problems, appears the weakest of the four and a natural fall guy.
But not all is as it seems. More complicated layers to the partners' true characters, their relationships and their views of each other are gradually exposed. Under question is much more than just who is willing to sacrifice his freedom for the benefit of the others, but the ethics of making such a decision for oneself or for another.
They psycho-analyze each other in an attempt to judge how each would handle the repercussions of this decision. Each argues why the others should be chosen first. One by one, loyalties crumble under the weight of their fight to survive. Alliances and bribes, grudges and secrets, accusations, class divisions and amorous deceits all bubble to the surface. Finally, it comes down to a vote.
But how can you judge a person's right to live his or her life? What are the criteria that make one human life more valuable than another, not just in the context of their usefulness to a company but in their value to their families, to society at large and even to themselves?
"Seven Years" can ask but it can't answer these questions. In doing so, it forces us to ask ourselves the same questions. It makes a statement about the greed of today's society, where nothing is ever enough, and it offers a revealing indictment of a country where citizens have lost faith in their institutions and feel justified working around the law. And it’s told, intentionally or not, from a distinctly male perspective.
A Bit of Respect
Written by newcomer Jose Cabeza, "Seven Years" marks a return to style for director Roger Gual, who made the understated 2002 comedy "Smoking Room" about a company man trying to convince his mostly male co-workers to create a space in the office for smokers.
Both films rely heavily on dialogue rather than varied settings or action to carry the narratives. Both have a decidedly realistic look and feel, though "Seven Years," by necessity of the story, has a more self-consciously sophisticated style. And both films offer showcases for some of the Spanish-speaking world's most talented actors (in "Seven Years," two of the four lead actors are Colombian).
Underscoring the significance of the participation of Netflix, which now boasts more than 86m subscribers worldwide, Gual told Spanish newspaper "El País" that his first movie didn’t make it outside Spain. "For those of us in the movie industry, the fact that a film can hit 190 countries at once calls for a bit of respect.”