It quickly becomes clear, however, that while Laura seems to have put her past behind her, Mirta pines for her husband Pablo, who took off for Buenos Aires when most of his and Mirta's house -- which he'd built as a hotel -- burned mere days before it was scheduled to open. He never returned. Having bonded, Laura and Mirta agree to restore the hotel, and set about doing so with the assistance of local sweetie-pie Tony (Federico Olivera), who harbors a huge crush on Mirta. Here's where the narrative and the filmmaking begin to falter.

Through yet another plot convenience, Muriel comes into possession of a video camera, left behind by a pair of beautiful, just-passing-through twentysomethings. Muriel seizes the camera, and, in mottled, rapid-cut, shaky-cam scenes set to rustic guitar and harmonica music, Milewicz shows us the restoration of This Old Hotel, with the sun shining brightly -- up until this point it has rained constantly -- on the completed project. Kind of hokey. Worse, with this bit the director forsakes deliberate, ungussied storytelling for technical gimmickry and music-enhanced posturing. So, with the hotel open for business (a pair of oldsters materializes); with Mirta having emerged from her dark cloud of distrust; with Laura smiling, obviously not even remotely "mentally unbalanced"; with everything looking hunky-dory (the sun shines!) -- you knew this was coming -- one of the wayward men returns, throwing Laura and Mirta and the kids' balanced, bucolic, womancentric world into a tizzy.

Always thoughtful, frequently incisive, La Vida Segun Muriel nonetheless stumbles sometimes, although it never actually splays on the ground. Not only do the tepid soundtrack music, both instrumental and vocal, and video-cam silliness detract from the proceedings, but from the moment the Man turns up, too often Milewicz resorts to indicating rather than showing. Additionally, and not insignificantly, he and Silvestre ignore the character of Mirta for too long a stretch, then yank her back in for a momentous denouement, which comes across as strained rather than cathartic. Still, the filmmakers have fashioned a work that respects both its characters and its audience. A quiet testament to inner fortitude, La Vida Segun Muriel accomplishes its modest but worthy goal of realistically portraying women struggling with major life-choices -- and it does so without bold-faced pronouncements and outright man-bashing. (Saturday, February 7, 4:30 p.m.)

-- Michael Yockel

About halfway through David Mamet's entertaining intrigue The Spanish Prisoner, we learn that the film's title refers to an elaborate and very old confidence game. Campbell Scott plays Joe Ross, an inventor or perhaps an engineer -- it's never really spelled out -- whose top-secret "process" has his corporate bosses wagging their tails in anticipation of huge profits. They fly him from his New York City office to a Caribbean resort to meet stockholders. He meets them, all right, along with a set of oddballs whose interest in Joe ranges from the bizarre to the unhealthy.

All that occurs in the first ten minutes. By the time Joe has to return to New York, he's made friends with Jimmy Dell (Steve Martin), a jet setter who asks Joe to deliver a package to his sister there. Joe is also basking in the attentions of his new secretary, Susan Ricci (played by Mamet's real-life wife Rebecca Pidgeon). Meanwhile, despite vague promises from his bosses, Joe can't determine what his share of the financial windfall from the implementation of his process is going to be. His higher-ups refuse to commit anything to paper. When the mysterious Jimmy shows up in New York, Joe seems headed into a major con.

Written and directed by Mamet and produced by long-time Woody Allen associate Jean Doumanian, The Spanish Prisoner is such a well-executed and well-acted movie that you might not care that, once it gets rolling, you can easily see the con coming. (Never mind. Subtle surprises appear even as the director seems to be tying up loose ends.) Joe exists, of course, in the Mamet universe, the same existential hellhole that pervades the playwright's Glengarry Glen Ross, Oleanna, and Speed-the-Plow. (The first two have been adapted for the screen.) As occurs in those plays -- as well as in Mamet's screenplays for 1987's House of Games and the current Wag the Dog -- the characters here maneuver around each other uttering staccato dialogue, a creepy code that actually has more to do with posturing than speech. When Joe, complaining to his boss (Ben Gazzara), comments that "the question is one of compensation," the sentence implies every sinister possibility that can arise as a result of Joe's apparent passivity.

It's no surprise then that Joe can't trust anyone. His first real conversation with Susan is about whether new buddy Jimmy is who he says he is. (She thinks not.) Even the lobby of Joe's office sports a World War II propaganda poster sternly pointing out that "Someone talked." So why is Joe so trusting of Jimmy? Their friendship nearly dissolves before it's solidified, but when Jimmy calls to apologize after they have a misunderstanding, the two bond. With Jimmy on his side, Joe asserts himself, pressing for adequate compensation; then, before he knows it, he's on the run.

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