The Innocent web series review: Oriol Paulo unleashes his most suspenseful, emotionally charged work yet
El Inocente (a.k.a The Innocent) is a stunningly staged, intricate maze of overlapping events that begins with an unintentional act of violence that turns a young man's world upside down
Whenever I begin bingeing a new series, the one thing I always dread is the disappointment when the final or penultimate episodes don't deliver on the promises made before it. And lately, I've been wary of getting into something that features a high dose of violence, considering what our world is going through right now. But the urge to check out the new work by Oriol Paulo -- the brilliant mind behind the widely popular Invisible Guest (adapted in Hindi as Badla; in Telugu as Evaru), The Body, and Mirage -- was too strong to pass up. Can you imagine missing an eight-hour suspense drama directed by Paulo? It's too exciting a thought, and I was curious to find out how he fared in long-form storytelling. Checking out his latest creation, El Inocente, streaming now on Netflix, is one of the best decisions I ever made.
Director: Oriol Paulo
Cast: Mario Casas, Aura Garrido, Alexandra Jimenez, Martin Gusman, Juana Acosta Jose Coronado
Streaming on: Netflix
It's not often that one comes across a series that doesn't make you regret the amount of time and effort you put into it. Based on Harlan Coben's novel of the same name, El Inocente (a.k.a The Innocent) is a stunningly staged, intricate maze of overlapping events that begins with an unintentional act of violence that turns a young man's world upside down. The world of this man, Mateo Vidal (Mario Casas from The Invisible Guest), is shattered when he has to serve a four-year prison sentence for the said act. When he gets out, another devastating blow awaits him. But soon, a faint glimmer of hope appears in the form of a woman named Olivia (Aura Garrido), who accepts his past and loves him for the man he is now. She understands perfectly well, and you learn the reason much later.
When everything seems to be going so fine, a phone call out of nowhere plunges El Inocente deeply into the film-noir territory. We learn that it's only the tip of the iceberg. We get multiple story threads and character arcs, each spectacularly merging into the other. But when you distill everything, it all comes down to two big stories. One explores guilt and revenge, while the other brings with it far-reaching implications. And when they both collide, every character begins looking over their shoulder.
As in the chapters of a great suspense novel, each episode takes its time to introduce every principal character. Everyone has a dark past revealed by the characters through their voiceover as though describing it to themselves. This approach reminded me of the independent American noir film Blast of Silence, in which the lead character talks to himself through another person's voice. El Inocente gives every character a significant amount of time and attention. Good or bad, it makes no distinction. It allows them all to have their say, regardless of how you feel about them. For example, in the second episode, we are so deep into another character's background that the protagonist, or any events related to him, is nowhere to be seen; for a moment there, it got me wondering whether I was watching an anthology. But everything made sense in the closing moments of the episode.
Right from the first episode, Paulo plays the characters and the audience like a master manipulator. He is, after all, a huge Alfred Hitchcock fan. El Inocente sees Paulo channelling his inner Hitchcock in a way he hasn't done in his earlier work. I would even go so far as to say that Paulo is Hitchcock's true successor. The long-form narrative also makes it possible for Paulo to do what he couldn't in a two-hour feature film. He doesn't hold back when depicting violence perpetrated against women. At least two male characters treat some women like garbage, despite having families of their own.
Thankfully, Paulo doesn't apply the same approach to sexual violence. He shows disturbing information, yes, but spares us the visuals. Unlike some filmmakers, Paulo is careful not to get too exploitative. He only reveals enough to give us an idea of the larger picture. It's similar to what David Fincher did in Se7en. But let me warn you that there are times when the camera lingers on more than one heavily disfigured corpse on the forensic table, a few seconds longer than necessary. But once you get past all that, what awaits you is a rollercoaster of thrills and emotions.
In a two-hour suspense film, we expect the last 30 or 15 mins to deliver the best bits. In El Inocente, Paulo cranks up the tension as we approach the final three episodes. One shootout and subsequent chase got my heart racing, and if that weren't enough, he hurls us into a twist buffet in the final episode. When you begin to think it's all over, another revelation arrives, either to shock or delight. What's more impressive is how everything gets neatly resolved. There are no unanswered questions. The screenplay is constructed in such a way that in case you find yourself forgetting what either of the characters did before, it will immediately come back to you in a second or two.
Paulo's style is very classical, using techniques some of the great masters of cinema once did. He makes use of a well-coordinated combination of camera movements and editing to either suggest the danger lurking underneath or give us a hint of a character's fate. I counted at least two close-ups that made me go, "Oh s***!" It's all enhanced by Fernando Velázquez's gripping background score, which works its magic from the opening through the end credits. (Fernando also scored The Invisible Guest.)
I also loved how, at times, certain characters relive their past trauma and find catharsis through a similarly affecting trauma in the present. The mirror effect brings everything full circle. A pivotal plot development, where one of the characters' fate is altered irrevocably by their past actions, brought to mind Hitchcock's Psycho. Every character in El Inocente has a breaking point. All it takes is that dormant little trigger they didn't know existed within them. The paths they eventually take, however, vary. While some find a way to use their trama to improve themselves, others go down a path from which there is no rescue.
One of the things I love about Paulo's work is that he knows how to tell a decent relationship story despite his penchant for wicked twists. It's a story of fathers, sons, mothers, and daughters; of people looking for second chances; of people who have lost their family and are looking for another; of people who are constantly seeking closure for their past deeds; of finding strength in the most unexpected of situations.
El Inocente has themes that Paulo has explored before, and it's easy to see why this material greatly appealed to him. You can tell he had a lot of fun. The best of all is an emotionally charged story of a group of women, their survival, empowerment, and their ever-lasting bond whose impact lasts through life and death. Their struggle to break free of their hellish circumstances got me thinking of this Indian film, Parched, which told a similar story of courage and empowerment. El Inocente puts the characters through hell and seemingly infinite darkness, but the light that finally appears at the end of the tunnel is the brightest they've ever witnessed in their lives. It ends on a hopeful note, along with another delightful twist as a cherry on top.
With El Inocente, Paulo has not only set a benchmark for other suspense-obsessed filmmakers but also himself. If you have the stomach for it, I suggest watching the entire thing in the original language instead of the English-dubbed version, in one go, rather than waiting for a day or two between each episode. I can't wait to see what Paulo comes up with next.