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An insurance salesman going through a mid-life crisis rescues a suicidal young woman from a subway platform and becomes immersed in her life and that of her family in a way that changes everyone's life forever. Last Images of the Shipwreck was the third feature by metaphysical Argentine director Eliseo Subiela whose earlier work Man Facing Southeast received much critical attention. The film, just released on a Facets DVD, contains numerous surreal images such as the young woman having a conversation with Jesus Christ in a church, and ghosts of her dead relatives appearing on the bus on which she is traveling. The subtext of the film is open to interpretation but I see it as an allegory about the failure of Peronism and nationalism to provide meaning and economic security for the people of Argentina.
Set in Buenos Aires at the end of the period of military dictatorship, Roberto (Lorenzo Quinteros) is a salesman and writer who has writer's block and is unable to finish his novel. In the opening sequence, Roberto, sitting under a tree in a pastoral setting, establishes the frame from which he tells his story. The scene then shifts to his house where the frustrated writer, in a biblical metaphor, is up all night searching for the Word that will put his novel back on track but it is not forthcoming. The next day, passengers appear on the train as lifeless and passive, sitting with plastic hoods over their faces, perhaps reflecting the nightmare of political terror that Argentina had experienced under military rule.
As he despairs of finding the Word, Estela (Noemi Frankel) appears across the platform seemingly ready to jump onto the path of an oncoming train. After Roberto races to save her life, she tells him that she is a prostitute and that her suicide attempts are only an act to attract clients. Undeterred, he is fascinated with her and offers to pay her in exchange for meeting her family, seeing them as interesting subjects for his novel. Gradually he becomes more and more involved with her life and he pays regular visits to her rundown house on the outskirts of Buenos Aires along the River Plate.
Slowly he gets to know her eccentric brothers who live at home. Mario (Andrés Tiengo) is building an airplane on the roof of the house and Jose (Pablo Brichta) is a petty thief and hold-up man. Claudio (Hugh Soto) is a former philosophy student who spends his life growing pumpkins, deletes words from his vocabulary by crossing them off his bedroom wall, and plots to kill his mother (Sara Benitez) with slug poison. All are deeply angry with their father who deserted the family and left them in poverty. The loss and degradation of language becomes a theme that mirrors the psychic state of the society.
Roberto's fiction offers a way out and Estela's family looks to him as their author, as someone that can provide meaning to their shipwrecked lives. They want him to tell them how to put everything together and make things right but he is unable to find the key to salvation, theirs and his. Confused and depressed, he "escapes" by leaving his wife and getting fired from his job. Even Christ is tired and is unable to provide the Word to Estela that will rescue the world. In a rage after Jose loses the great battle against death, Estela demands that Roberto assume moral responsibility for his complicity in their lives and he responds in a way that directs the story toward a surprising resolution. Last Images of the Shipwreck is a thought-provoking film that will please adherents of Subiela's poetic vision but its power is muted by its meandering pace and characters that are more symbols than fully developed human beings.
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