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Empathy for a battered wife, but also her abuser

Imagine a European version of ''Sleeping With the Enemy," the heavy-breathing domestic violence melodrama from early in Julia Roberts's career. The characters are more average and less articulate this time around, and the abuse more realistic in its banal emotional death-grip. The heroine isn't so much an avenging angel as a sad, increasingly resolute victor over her circumstances.

Most surprisingly, ''Take My Eyes," from the Spanish actress-turned-director Iciar Bollain, extends empathy to all its characters, including the husband doling out the beatings. Said empathy doesn't extend to forgiveness -- Antonio (Luis Tosar), a brooding Toledo appliance salesman, is clearly the author of both his misfortunes and his wife's. But the film has the risky humanity to suggest that nothing can change until he forgives himself. Even then, it's probably too late.

''Take My Eyes" begins with Pilar (Laia Marull) fleeing her house one night with her young son Juan (Nicolas Fernandez Luna) and finding refuge with her sister Ana (Candela Pena from Almodovar's ''All About My Mother"). The two women are different in the way sisters can be: Ana is a bohemian art restorer living with an easygoing Scot (David Mooney), while Pilar is meek, gentle, a battered bird who shrinks into an already tiny frame. Her husband calls her ''Shorty," a nickname both tender and threatening.

At first, Antonio is just a black cloud on the horizon. Pilar steps gingerly back into the world even as Ana uncovers grim evidence of injuries passed off as falls downstairs and so forth. When the wife takes a job in a museum gift shop, the husband comes around begging for forgiveness. He'll change, he swears. He's in therapy, he says.

He is, actually, and the group scenes with Antonio's therapist (Sergi Calleja) teeter on the verge of ''Ordinary People" glibness even as they show a cruel man struggling for self-knowledge while simultaneously looking away. The film's title comes from an endearment Pilar says to her husband during one of their quieter moments, and even if she doesn't realize it, she's telling him to take her eyes and look at himself.

She could use a little self-examination, too. Bollain and Alicia Luna, her co-writer, are smart and pitiless about the ways abuse survivors can take guilt upon themselves, seeking to absolve their batterers even as they flinch from them. It's unclear what cripples Pilar and Antonio more: their lack of self-worth or their lack of words to express it.

The perverse achievement of ''Take My Eyes" is that it gets you to hope against plain common sense for these two to figure things out, perhaps even for their marriage to be saved. Without spoiling the denouement, I'll say that Bollain is anything but naive. The movie rolls inexorably to a conclusion that seems preordained -- especially if you know the Lifetime movie drill -- but it's the journey there that gives off little shocks of sorrow and recognition.

At the same time, Pilar remains something of a cipher, as delicately as Marull portrays her. In the end, the focus of ''Take My Eyes" is Antonio -- in the jawline that flexes and relaxes -- and the film may have its greatest currency as a warning to men in the macho Spanish society it depicts (a society where even a heroine's mother can urge her to go back to her abusive husband just like she did). This small, somber drama says things to battered women they probably already know. What it says to their abusers -- of any country or culture -- they can't afford to ignore.

Ty Burr can be reached at

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