Antonio Hernandez's family mystery, "The City of No Limits," is a tidy soap opera. But it's a discreet, warmly made one, too. In a show of restraint, the intrigue never rises above mildly juicy, and you might even wonder what this family's fuss is about.
Patriarch Max (Fernando Fernan Gomez) awaits surgery in a Paris hospital to remove a tumor, and in his suffering belts out a word: "Rancel!" Who or what is a Rancel? Well, I can tell you it's not a sled. It's a person, although no one admits to knowing more. Even Max stays cagey as he enlists his youngest son Victor (Leonardo Sbaraglia) to drag this person from Madrid to Paris.
Victor's not sure what to think of his dad. Is the old man paranoid in his sickness? And how on earth is he supposed to find this Rancel? His brothers (Roberto Alvarez and Alex Casanovas) are too concerned with the fate of the family business to be of much use, and his mother Marie (Geraldine Chaplin), who's been devotedly nursing Max, coughs up a story about Rancel dying in a Spanish prison, after Max, his good friend and partner, gave him up to the government.
Sbaraglia is dutiful without seeming lost or blank, despite a role that asks him to make a lot of bewildered expressions. Victor often can't believe he's putting this much faith in his dad's words. This son's uncertain trust of his father is less sugarcoated and symbol-laden here than in Tim Burton's "Big Fish." What this amounts to is more satisfying than can be expected.
The cast teems with strong performances, including those of Leticia Bredice as Victor's girlfriend, Ana Fernandez as his mistress, and Adriana Ozores as his high-strung sister-in-law. Chaplin, who's proving to be better in Spanish than in English, carves out some dramatic space for herself. Eventually, she reveals that Marie is deceiving her son -- the calm in the middle of a relatively mellow domestic storm -- to spare him her nasty feelings. The movie is psychologically well drawn enough that once all the truths are out, you can almost understand where she's coming from.
Hernandez insists on a soap's emotional hairpin turns and nonstop plot, yet he has a dramatist's aims. After a stagy start, the movie gets wise and life-size. "The City of No Limits" is about how social taboos thin out over time and how one generation's modernity can chafe against another's. What hurts Victor about his family's secret is not its contents but its keepers.
("The City of No Limits": ***)
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.