MDQ Fest Round-Up 2: Primas, Les Gardiennes, 5 Therapy & The Silence of the Wind

Notes from the 32° Mar del Plata International Film Festival

by Benjamín Harguindey

The 32° Mar del Plata International Film Festival runs November 17-26 and we continue to review the movies competing in the festival’s International Section. Today’s round-up includes Primas (Laura Bari, Argentina), Les Gardiennes (Xavier Beauvois, France), 5 Therapy (Alisa Pavlovskaya, Ukraine) and The Silence of the Wind (Álvaro Poce Centeno, Puerto Rico).

Primas (lit. “Cousins”) is a tough movie to review, given the subject matter. It documents the struggle of two girls who’ve suffered horrible physical and sexual abuse at the hands of men. Both happen to be cousins; hence the throwaway title. The systematic abuse and mistreatment of women is in urgent need of recognition, and Primas hews strong and true on the matter. It doesn’t just help shed more light on these issues, it also takes the right position in celebrating the bravery of these women rather than victimizing them and begging for pity. Life goes on for Rocío and Aldana: the movie doesn’t just provide catharsis for them, it also signals that there’s light at the end of the tunnel.

But regardless of the necessity of the movie – and it’s very much a necessity, both in Argentina and the rest of the world – the manner in which it has been shot begs criticism. The intent is always in the right place, but the more “poetic” passages of the movie feel rather hokey, especially when held against the raw testimony of the girls. A single 12 minute take in which the girls take turns recounting their abuse – alternatively breaking down, hugging each other, making themselves laugh and carrying on – is so much more effective than Bari’s visual rendition of them crawling across mud and sand, or having them engage in interpretative dancing. These passages feel at odds with the rest of the movie, which may have been more effective if shot in the bare vein of Shoah (1985).

Based on a novel by Ernest Pérochon, Les Gardiennes is an unremarkable period piece about women waiting out the Great War in the French countryside. You’ve seen this European Hallmark production several times: letters are written, sent, read and burnt; soldiers come back from the trenches, depress the household and go back to the unseen battlefront. Pregnancies ensue, gossip spreads, secrets are buried. So it goes.

They key players are Hortense (Nathalie Baye), who runs the family farm, and Francine (Iris Bry), hired help in the absence of men around the house (Hortense’s layabout husband doesn’t count). For a while the movie concerns itself with the daily routine in the farm and the strengthening bond between Hortense and Francine, and works perfectly fine on those terms (newcomer Bry in particular has a charming, fresh presence). But through melodramatic period contrivances bordering on soap opera, Hortense adopts the stock mantle of the Matriarch Upholding the Family Name, and things get dicey for Francine. The movie draws out long after the end of the war and becomes kind of a bore when we realize the course is rigidly set for the remaining 40 minutes or so.

5 Therapy is ostensibly based on the memoirs of one Stas Dombrovsky, a junkie-turned-writer from the Ukraine who also plays himself in the movie. Framed by the meeting of a self-help group, Stas recounts how he hit rock bottom while addicted to heroin, violently mauled a cop and went cold turkey in prison, after which he tried to reform himself and his life as a writer. All of this suggests an interesting story, and maybe that’s the case with Dombrovsky’s, but the movie does not hold much water.

What the movie lacks is conviction, and for it to suggest a level of interpretation other than the literal one. It all has the conviction of a school play going through rehearsed motions: we never share the joy or despair of its protagonist, and Stas’ journey is so straightforward and predictable that it cheapens the intended sense of intimacy. Maybe one of the problems is having the man play himself, albeit with a sense of distance that he never grounds any scene with realism or urgency. Ultimately the movie comes across as deeply defective, a good story in dire need of better crafting.

Finally there’s El silencio del viento (lit. “The Silence of the Wind”), a rare example of Puerto Rican cinema. The story – about Hatian refugees being smuggled into San Juan – would ordinarily be told as a documentary, but director Álvaro Ponce Centeno grounds the issue in fiction and from the perspective of Rafito (Israel Lugo), a character with actual emotional depth to his name and whose actions have some dramatic weight to them. As the movie begins, his sister is found brutally murdered and he takes over her gig as a smuggler and temporary caretaker of illegal immigrants.

As with Carmen’s murder, much goes unsaid in the movie – like Columbus, meaning is conveyed primarily through framing and camera movement, though we do get the occasional emotional outburst from Rafito. The camera takes the rold of omniscient narrator, choosing to hold certain scenes at arm’s length, adscribing intensity by being either too close or too far away, curiously following or shying away from characters, and sometimes even keeping things altogether off-camera. The movie blends the spontaneity of the documentary form with the methodical, gentle sweeps and pans of traditional filmmaking, and the result is nothing short of elegant and persuasive

BenjaBenjamín Harguindey / Managing Editor, Writer (Mar del Plata, Argentina – 1989) Screenwriter graduated from Universidad del Cine, Buenos Aires. Benja’s worked for EscribiendoCine as a film critic since 2010, covering the Biarritz, San Sebastián and Venice festivals. He judged the CILECT Prize and won several writing & criticism contests. He’s published one novel, Noches de Tartaria (2006).

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