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For parents of young children, there can’t be many more terrifying nightmares than having them vanish, seemingly without a trace. Despite how careful and attentive parents might be, they’re not omniscient deities: even the best parents can let their attention stray for a moment, become complacent with friendly surroundings, take their eyes off their precious charges for the barest of moments. As we find out all too frequently these days, it doesn’t take more than a moment (sometimes only a few seconds) for tragedy to strike.

Argentinian writer-director Patxi Amezcua’s Septimo (2013) deals with just this parental nightmare and, for over half its 88 minute running-time, it’s quite the razor-sharp, white knuckle thriller. Coming off as a grim combination of Hitchcock’s classic The Lady Vanishes (1938) and George Sluzier’s Spurloos (The Vanishing) (1988), Amezcua puts his characters (and his audience) through the wringer, giving us a front-row seat to the mounting terror that an estranged husband and wife feel as they desperately search for their missing children. Once the mystery comes into sharper focus, however, the film loses much of its inherent tension, playing out towards a rather predictable ending, right up to the fourth act “twist.” At the end of the day, however, half a Hitchcock ain’t too shabby.

When we first meet newly divorced criminal lawyer, Sebastian (Ricardo Darín), it’s pretty obvious that the guy is a dick: we watch him shrug off his anxious sister’s concerns about her potentially abusive ex and see him rage against the “old lady” who keeps parking in his designated spot at his apartment building. After the kindly super, Miguel (Luis Ziembrowski), explains that the old lady is almost blind, Sebastian snorts and replies that he’ll happily have her towed, anyway: if she can’t see, sell the damn car. George Bailey, he’s most certainly not.

Once Sebastian gets up to his seventh floor apartment (hence the film’s Spanish title, as well as its alternate title, 7th Floor), we meet his adorable kids, Luna (Charo Dolz Doval) and Luca (Abel Dolz Doval), as well as his put-upon ex-wife, Delia (Belén Rueda). There’s still lots of simmering tension in the relationship, mostly due to the fact that Sebastian is a pompous ass who’s constantly running late, although more for the fact that he steadfastly refuses to sign the paperwork that will allow Delia to move herself and the kids to Spain (they all currently reside in Buenos Aires), so that she can take care of her ailing father. Sebastian is, above all else, a deeply selfish man, however, and he has no intention of making anything easy for his ex.

On the day of a particularly high-profile case, however, Sebastian’s life hits a bit of a speed-bump. Humoring his children, the lawyer lets them race down the stairs while he takes the elevator, the exact same “game” that Delia has previously complained about being “too dangerous.” Beating them to the lobby, Sebastian waits around until he gets a troublesome notion: the kids aren’t coming down. From this point, Luna and Luca’s father flies into a mad frenzy of activity, frantically searching his apartment building for any sign of his kids, all while trying to avoid alerting Delia to the present crisis. Enlisting a resident police office, Rosales (Osvaldo Santoro), for help, Sebastian questions his neighbors, many of whom seem to be decidedly odd, suspicious people. As the clock continues to tick down, the obnoxious lawyer must learn to rely on the help of others, even as he seeks to unravel the mystery of his kids’ disappearance. Is this related to his high-profile case? Does Rosales know more than he’s letting on? And, most importantly: will Sebastian and Delia ever see their children again?

Up until the midpoint revelation, Septimo is an endlessly tense, nail-biting bit of cinema, easily comparable to the work of fellow Argentinian Adrián García Bogliano (there are bits and pieces of his Cold Sweat (2010) and Penumbra (2011) littered through Septimo’s DNA). The acting is uniformly solid, with Darín and Rueda being easy standouts as the parents. There’s a real art-form to playing an asshole character (too much on either side and the character becomes either completely unbearable or thoroughly unrealistic) and Darín hits the bulls-eye with what seems to be studied ease. It’s all in the margins for the character: we get enough casual exposition to establish Sebastian’s more douche-bag tendencies (his infidelity with Delia’s best friend, his casually dismissive interactions with anyone “below” his station) but he fills in the spaces with some truly subtle mannerisms that are almost subliminal. We can see that Sebastian is an asshole but, more importantly, we can feel that he’s an asshole: as far as I’m concerned, that’s great characterization, right there.

For her part, Rueda’s Delia is a massively complex character, made more so by the fact that we spend so little time with her compared to Sebastian: like Sebastian, we pick up much of our impressions of her from the margins, with the added benefit of the surprise “revelations” of the mystery format. There’s a subtle sense of downplaying that really works with Rueda’s performance: she dials it back enough that, when Delia needs to let loose, her outbursts actually come with a little punch. Call it the benefit of knowing when to turn the knobs to 11 and when to exercise a little restraint.

The rest of the cast does equally admirable work, albeit in much smaller doses. Osvaldo Santoro is extremely charismatic as the gruff, no-nonsense police officer, while Luis Ziembrowski manages to make the character of the landlord seem kindly, sympathetic and a tad bit sinister. Perhaps most impressively, the Dovals do fantastic work as the children, Luna and Luca. Oftentimes, child performers are the weak link in any production: it pretty much comes with the territory. In this case, however, Abel and Charo hit every single required beat, managing to walk a tight line between adorable urchins and actual flesh-and-blood people.

If I have any real complaints with Septimo, they lie more with what is being expressed than how it’s being expressed (although I’ll freely admit that the midpoint resolution and resulting “twist” ending did nothing for me and actually knocked the film down a peg or two, in my mind). While I won’t give away the final revelation (astute viewers will probably be able to piece at least part of it together well before the final act), suffice to say that it felt more than a little misogynistic and casually cruel, at least to this viewer. It seems that Amezcua went out of his way to establish Sebastian as an unrepentant cad throughout the film, only to suddenly end up in his corner by the finale. It feels a little unfair, sure, but it also feels as if it blatantly disregards many of the subtle points that have been raised throughout the rest of the film. I’m not sure if Amezcua was making an actual point or whether I just read a bit too much into it: regardless, this ended up leaving a distinctly bad taste in my mouth that impacted my overall impression.

Slightly muddled message aside, there’s an awful lot to like here. As stated earlier, the first 40+ minutes of the film are some of the tightest, most tense and atmospheric that I’ve seen recently: I don’t throw that Hitchcock stuff around lightly, after all. When Darín is frantically racing around his apartment building, barging into locked residences and alternately cajoling and threatening anyone who crosses his path, there’s a sweaty, adrenalized sense of panic to the proceedings that are pure cinematic bliss. Perhaps it was asking a bit much for Amezcua and company to sustain that fever pitch for the entirety of the film but I still can’t help but feel a bit disappointed. Here’s to hoping that, next time around, Amezcua lets us all twist on the hook just a little longer.