Set in 1936 during the Spanish Civil War, El Mar begins in a deeply unsettling manner: three children - Romallo, Manuel and Francesca - witness one of their friends avenge his father's murder by killing the executioner's son.
One suicide later and we jump several years in time, to a hospital for tuberculosis sufferers. Here, our trio of childhood friends are re-united: Romallo is now a cold, calculating thief, with a frighteningly vicious streak; Manuel is tormented by formidable twin demons (religion and sex), while Francesca has become a sister of mercy: strong, wise, yet ultimately helpless.
Bolstered by some admirably unglamourous performances, El Mar takes us to a place we really don't want to visit and pushes the envelope almost too far on at least three occasions.
Thankfully, Villaronga's film manages to shrug aside any blinkered accusations of immorality. It's a beautifully constructed work, brimming with imagery that haunts the mind for days afterwards, though an unwillingness to book an early second viewing would be an understandable reaction.