Alberto Rodríguez / Spain/ 2016 / 123 mins
As part of the Edinburgh Spanish Film Festival
At the outset of Smoke and Mirrors, our helpful narrator informs us that what we’re about to see is based on a true story; but, “like all true stories, it contains a few lies.” Unpicking those lies from the truths will comprise much of the legwork for the next two hours – not only for the audience, but for most of the characters, as well.
Set in the 90s when the web of top-level Spanish corruption was only just beginning to reveal itself, Smoke and Mirrors concentrates on the exploits of one Francisco (Paco) Paesa, a disgruntled ex-Secret Service member who was never reimbursed for all of the dirty work he plundered for his country. Returning to his homeland in 1994, he encounters another man on the very fringes of respectability – Luis Roldán, a corrupt former Police Commissioner who embezzled millions of pesetas of public funds.
Roldán approaches Paesa to help him launder and bury the selfsame funds, as well as spirit himself and his missus outwith the lengthy arms of the Spanish law. However, Paesa sees an opportunity to level an old score with his native country and puts into motion a spectacularly elaborate plan which sees him holding all the aces. Smart, snappy and slick throughout, the dialogue is fast-moving and the action even faster. Think Ocean’s Eleven meets American Hustle meets real-life Spanish scandal, and you’re not far off what Smoke and Mirrors is going for.
For anyone familiar with the story, the outcome is never in doubt, but those for whom the name Luis Roldán means nothing may find it quite hard to keep up with exactly who’s diddling who. Indeed, Eduard Fernández plays Paesa with such shambling pretensions of grandeur that it’s not always clear if he is indeed the “man of a thousand faces” to which the original Spanish title of the film refers; it’s obvious that someone’s being ripped off, but not always who or why. In this respect, a total ignorance of the ins and outs of the case might actually be beneficial to the film’s enjoyment, as the audience is kept guessing just as much as the Spanish government.
Contrasting showy landmarks of major European cities with tight, claustrophobic close-ups of Roldán in hiding, the cinematography is superb and the acting equally impressive. It’s a little bit of a shame that we don’t see behind Paesa’s mask more often (a solitary phone call to his wife is all the character insight we’re really given), but perhaps that’s to be expected with a master shuckster. Smart, funny and entertaining throughout, Smoke and Mirrors is an alternative view of one of Spain’s biggest villains of the last 20 years – and of the man who sewed him up like a kipper.