Tosar (left) in Operation E
  • Tosar (left) in Operation E

There are numerous reasons to see the docudrama Operation E (2012), which screens again at the Gene Siskel Film Center tomorrow at 7:45 PM (it’s part of the sidebar of new Spanish cinema in the European Union Film Festival), but chief among them is Luis Tosar. In every performance of his I’ve seen, this Spanish actor seems to transform himself from the inside out—each character has his own body language, his own way of making eye contact. His characters even appear to process thoughts at different speeds. Yet with the possible exception of his South American drug lord in Miami Vice (who hides behind a giant, mask-like beard), all of Tosar’s characters look and sound like him. He takes no shortcuts to disappear into a role.

If there’s a particular quality in which Tosar specializes, it’s in conveying the vulnerability of men who are afraid to express it or else have been socially conditioned not to. This quality unites the very different characters he’s played for actor-director Icíar Bollaín: the small-town man awaiting a mail-order bride in Flowers From Another World (1999), the abusive husband struggling to reform himself in Take My Eyes (2003), and the cynical movie producer in Even the Rain (2010). That vulnerability is also central to his performance in Operation E, in which he plays a Colombian farmer thrown into the chaos of civil war.

The film climaxes with the rescue, in early 2008, of politician Clara Rojas, who had been kidnapped by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in 2001, along with Emmanuel, the baby she had in captivity. Yet it’s not about this rescue mission, per se. Tosar plays the poor farmer entrusted with the baby soon after he’s born and who ends up risking his life in order to save the child. It’s a tricky role in that it calls on the actor to convey this man’s heroism without making him seem so heroic that he reduces the surrounding humanitarian crisis to window dressing. To their credit, the filmmakers never let us forget about the terror of living in a FARC-controlled zone, employing a panoramic, highly detailed approach comparable to such recent Mexican docudramas as La Jaula de Oro and Heli. Tosar goes a long way in maintaining this tone—though he’s onscreen for nearly the entire movie, he never comes off as a leading man (as he did in Cell 211, for example). He acts as if he’s playing a supporting role, so that the larger social portrait can take center stage.

The script—credited to director Miguel Courtois-Paternina, producer Ariel Zeitoun, and screenwriter Antonio Onetti—undermines the character’s heroism from the start. The film opens on Tosar delivering a monologue to unseen captors about how he came to live in the Colombian jungle. He’s always been a stubborn man, he says. Despite being educated, he didn’t want to live among society, so he went out into the wild, captured an indigenous woman to be his wife, and tried to live off the land. Ironically he wound up growing coca for the FARC, who more or less kept him prisoner on his plot of land. He compromised with the guerillas constantly, even curried favor with them, so that he might live out his modest dream.

This character comes to suffer for his complicity; so too does his extended family. Yet the filmmakers never suggest that this man is receiving his comeuppance. To live in a terror-stricken country is to risk being victimized at any moment. Operation E derives much suspense from this fact, as well as a sense of tragedy that lingers well after the movie ends.