Non-Spanish cinema audiences now see the films of Pedro Almódovar (who famously directed "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown") more than any other kind of Spanish cinema, which in consequence, is regarded primarily as a thrilling burst, a buzzy cocktail of ideas, colour, and eccentricity which lays into Catholicism and machismo in equal measure, always fuelled by regular shots of irony.
More conventionally-shot films, certainly seen by indigenous audiences, do not cross the border very often these days. But the impressive "El Mar" is one which did. As interested as Almódovar in religion and death, it begins amidst the ferocity and treachery of the Spanish Civil War and ends ten years later in murder and suicide. Three young boys, used to romping around innocently in rural Spain, witness the father of another friend execute five opponents during the war (the victims being blessed by a priest is one of the many ironic jabs at religion), so one of them kills the son (witnessed by Francesca, the girl in the group) in a particularly grim manner. Ten years later, two of the lads - Ramallo and Tur - are tuberculosis patients at a sanatorium where Francesca is a nurse, and all three grapple with their renewed friendship (and the past) in quite different ways.
All three principals really come to terms with the conflicts in their respective roles, essential in a drama which is led by character, rather than a series of events. Director Agusti Villaronga gives them plenty of space, only occasionally spoiling the tone by allowing Ramallo and Tur one too many florid, metaphorical mini-speeches. In his quiet, undemonstrative way, the director also knows just when to push home his ideas on religion, sexuality, honesty and identity. Classy.