Beginning in December, HBO is making available a handful of their best TV dramas from around the world. This includes El Hipnotizador (The Hypnotist), a Brazilian speculative fiction period drama about an insomniac hypnotist who solves other people’s problems by putting them in a trance in order to reveal and deal with their deepest secrets and trauma.
At first glance, at least to this monolingual American viewer, El Hipnotizador may seem like a straight period drama, but that truth is quickly complicated as the first episode and season progresses. Zeppelins fill the sky of this fictional city where the border between magic and science is decidedly murky. (Think Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell.) Hypnotist Arenas has powers that go beyond what the real world recognizes as possible, as does his condition of perpetual insomnia, a punishment cast upon our enigmatic protagonist by his equally mysterious rival Darek.
When we first catch up with Arenas, he is moving to a new city and into a local hotel, which will serve as his home for the foreseeable future. (The manager, housekeeper, and various guests of the hotel are some of the characters in the show.) Arenas also spends time at The Rex Theater, where he performs his feats of hypnotism for crowds. There, we meet various managers and performers who fill in the ensemble of this strange and colorful world.
While this imaginative drama is listed as a Brazilian production, under the HBO Latin America umbrella, it is actually an impressively transnational project. Based on the Argentinian comic book by Pablo De Santis and Juan Sáenz Valiente with an Argentinian star (the talented Leonardo Sbaraglia), the visually lush series is filmed in Uruguay and includes cast members from Uruguay, Brazil, Mexico, Spain, and Portugal. Filmmakers Ruy Guerra and Maria de Medeiros, who also portray characters in the show, hail from Portugal.
This transnational background is reflecting in the world of El Hipnotizador. The story is set in a fictional Latin American city where both Portuguese and Spanish are spoken interchangeably.
The series has both serialized and standalone elements, a narrative structure that will prove familiar to American audiences. Arenas has cases of the week — such as a woman who dreams of a bird-man every night, drawing him as she sleeps — but there is also the ongoing mystery of Arenas’ past as explored through his own dream-like hallucinations and the problem of his perpetual insomnia.
After watching the first two episodes of El Hipnotizador, the strongest aspects of this drama for me come not in the story, but in its gorgeous visuals. This is a sumptuously-designed world that revels in the aesthetics of magical surrealism and period theater, and is more beautiful than most things you will find on American TV. Because of the blurry lines between magic and science, and reality and dreaming, El Hipnotizador is able to take advantage of dream-like visuals that are unlike anything currently on American TV. For that reason alone, El Hipnotizador is worth watching.
Other international series on offer via HBOGO HBONOW and HBO On Demand starting December 1st include: Pakt (Poland) and Wasteland (Czech Republic) from HBO Europe; La Vida Secreta de Las Parejas (Brazil); Halfworlds (Indonesia & Thailand) and The Teenage Psychic (Taiwan) from HBO Asia.