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Set in Argentina during the mid-1970s, Benjamín Naishtat's hypnotic drama follows a successful lawyer whose picture-perfect life begins to unravel when a private detective comes to his seemingly quiet small town and starts asking questions
Claudio Martínez Bel,
In my view, this is the best film to have come out of Argentina in the recent years, certainly, head and shoulders above the recent submissions to the Academy Awards from that country (none of those made it to the short list even, let alone the nominations - not since the witty and brilliant "Wild Tales" in 2014/2015), a story masterfully told. It is a concentration of elements that serve the story, not distract from it, the myriad of details and subtleties that may escape the attention of some viewers, but will nevertheless affect them. A film that allows the actors to create the tension and suspense brick by brick, weaving the delicate fabric of the complex narrative.
The plot (and the approach to it) can be found in the synopsis, so I am going to speak about the other elements that made the picture such a unique experience for me personally.
The script is one of the most intelligent, sophisticated and yet articulate ones that I have come across in the last few years, as far as Argentinean cinema goes. From the prologue, to the opening scenes and the whole first section of the movie we, the audience, are collecting the pieces of the puzzle, putting it together, then re-assembling the picture that seemed ready and "right" and putting together something entirely different. Was Adriana really killed? Was Elías the one who had something to do with it? Is Santiago, with whose eyes we first see the events of the night and who starts "looking into it", in danger? Will Carla, the daughter, dare suspect her father of such an atrocity? The accents shift, but the focus is always there, and so is the tension, mainly through the impeccable "less is more" acting of Diego Velasquez portraying Santiago (the son-in-law), the unsung hero of this acting ensemble. Local press praises (and rightly so) the tremendous tour-de-force acting of Oscar Martinez (Elías, the father) and the to-the-point energetic effort of Dolores Fonzi (Carla, the daughter) but somehow they totally overlook the real "duel" of the story and of the film - that of Santiago (Velasquez) and Elías (Martinez), who, interestingly, appeared opposite each other in the same "novela" of the "Wild Tales", 5 years ago. Velasquez's reactions, his subdued yet obvious anxiety and fear, the suspicion, the body language, his interaction with Dolores Fonzi's character - the "unsaid" things, the "unasked" questions - it is all there, burning a slow fire within this character. This is absolutely astounding in a least obvious way possible, and it is this tension that draws one into the story, and alongside the carefully created visual world (excellent art work and location choices!), atmospheric and non-intrusive original score (by Luca D'Alberto) and a perfectly paced camera work and editing, makes this film a fable as much as traditional thriller.
Directorial choices made by Miguel Cohan - throughout - are all at the service of the story (as, in my opinion, they should be) - one should pay attention to the way the "same" scene plays out when shown from two different points of view. The tempo changes, the acting changes - the pauses made by the actors are longer (or shorter), the emphases shift, the intentions and "underwater" motives now known become more or less explicit - look only at how the wonderfully cast Paulina García is asking Santiago (Velasquez) to take the food of the oven in the two versions shown in the film, this is so delicately done, so to the point, that acting filigree that is omnipresent in this picture, whether the characters speak or not.
The art department and the location scout did a fantastic job selecting the perfectly opposing home environments for the two households - that of Elías and Adriana and that of Carla and Santiago - the first - cold, geometrical, lifeless, the latter - warmer, with color accents (orange), much more organic and "lived in", mirroring the relationships between the family members. One can also see as, ghost-like, Elías' house as it used to be, sometimes manifests itself, or like Adriana's dream home with its stained glass, sunlight and colors reminds one of what it all used to be like decades ago.
As endless as this review is becoming, I cannot not mention the symbolism of the film and its elements that make it transcend a "cookie-cutter" psycho-thriller format. From the opening scene on, the biblical references (Cain-Abel, first and foremost) are everywhere. Even the name of the family farm "The Black Ram" with a characteristic animal logo speaks volumes, especially when it is reflected not only in the story of the protagonist, but also in his appearance. Through the meticulously set lighting to hair and make-up, Elías's resemblance of that animal is uncanny. The hair parted right in the middle, the accentuated cheekbones - at times it seems like Oscar Martinez is physically being transformed into that animal (note the dolly close-up in the bedroom right before Elías goes down into the kitchen on the night of the accident!). It is in a Dodge Ram that his creditor is pursuing him, almost hitting. And how perfectly timed is the scene at the train crossing, how ominous and yet non-manipulative all of these (and a million more) details are. The creepiness of Jonas, Santiago and Carla's son, his already perverse aversion to lies and darkness, that pattern "inherited" from his grandfather, his resemblance to his blood relatives on the mother's side is just another piece in the puzzle of a bigger picture, the one that gave title to the film.
Oscar Martinez delivered one of the best (if not THE best) and most cumulative performances of his illustrious career, every breath, every look, every pause, every choice made is calculated to perfection without ever seeming so, his acting is both immensely powerful and incredibly effortless, whether he is contemplating something in silence or venting out at the bureaucrats. The same effortlessness characterizes Dolores Fonzi's work - there are no special revelations there, probably, until the concluding scene with her father (Martinez) where she pulls out all the stops and goes beyond what one expects from both the character and the actress.
I salute Miguel Cohan for his intelligence, sensibility, bravery and good taste. I totally recommend this film to anyone who loves independent films, who can enjoy great acting, who can allow oneself time and even some effort to look at human nature and let the story unravel at its own pace. Go see it! 9*.
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