Silent Souls: Las acacias, A Useful Life

FILM, Film Festivals

At the New Zealand International Film Festival: The quiet affection and reverie of two South American films.

Among the topics I was able to glean from ‘water cooler’ discussions in the lead-up to this year’s New Zealand International Film Festival, a paucity of South American and Romanian features came up on more than one occasion, and there’s no disputing that the cinema of those regions has been especially strong of late. (NZIFF 2010, for instance, included thirteen films from South America in its programme.) Underrepresented as those parts of the world are though, of the handful of films that have been selected, the quality is exceptional: The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu (reviewed here) is a remarkably perceptive, compulsively absorbing documentary with ingenuity to match the previous festival’s lone Romanian flag bearer, Police, Adjective; and from Argentina and Uruguay respectively, Las acacias and A Useful Life are two of the finest films you’re likely to see this winter. After viewing Las acacias, winner of the Camera d’Or for Best First Feature at Cannes in May, critic Amy Taubin wrote that she could “barely remember a single incident” in Pablo Giorgelli’s film, but immediately wanted to see it again, and similarly, I’ve not quite been able to put my finger on what makes it such a memorable and overpowering experience. It’s one of the plainest films on offer at the festival, yet also one of the most deeply satisfying and indelible. And rarely has simplicity counted for so much.

In fact, so unassuming is Giorgelli’s film that audiences may find themselves questioning whether they are witnessing anything at all. However, nothing is everything in this trim, perfectly formed narrative of a middle-aged truck driver (Germán de Silva) who picks up a young Paraguayan mother (Hebe Duarte) and her baby while headed for Buenos Aires. Though sharing an identical opening sequence with another of the festival’s road movies, My Joy—in which a truck driver also sets off on a delivery route punctuated in its early stages by a border crossing and a stranger who catches a lift along the way—Las acacias never strays off the beaten track, a mark of its committed, plainspoken filmmaking. Significantly, its narrow focus gives rise to a set of emotions which, in other hands, would veer towards sentimentality—as a love story between working class folk, it suggests from another era the movies of Frank Borzage or Paddy Chayefsky’s Marty—but here, remain grounded in an unspoken sincerity that is the secret to its success.

At first annoyed by the inconvenience of taking on a passenger and her high-maintenance newborn, de Silva eventually develops a private fondness for Duarte, and as their destination draws nearer, we grow anxious at the thought of what will become of this nascent, barely articulated affection. Alternating almost entirely between a shot/reverse shot of the two actors from either side of the truck’s cab, Giorgelli understands, where other filmmakers tend to ignore, that journeys on the road lend themselves to quiet rather than endless talk, and the silences he uses to space out their fleeting conversations reflects the gentle rhythm and languid motion of traveling by automobile—that is, when the adorable baby isn’t seeking the limelight. But these wordless passages are also among some the richest and most emotionally charged in recent cinema, and their capacity to captivate speaks volumes of Giorgelli’s finesse as a director. The ending, a culmination of all the silence and modest interaction beforehand, feels both telegraphed in a positively old-fashioned way, and against the odds, unbearably tense without the need for manipulation. A non-event in any other context, its final moments are improbably exhilarating and will leave you short of breath.

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The sincerity of Federico Veiroj’s non-ironically titled second feature, A Useful Life, is also to be admired, and it is as touching and subtly crafted as Giorgelli’s film is. It’s a dignified elegy for the abandonment of cinemas, or at least a certain type of cinema—centres for the preservation and appreciation of the moving image, which are the cornerstone of film culture, and in turn, any self-respecting film festival. (Fittingly, its Wellington screenings are being presented in association with the Film Society, whose tireless volunteers provide what is the equivalent of a cinematheque in this city, and other regions around the country.) While Veiroj’s film speaks directly to cinephiles though, it isn’t particularly precious about its milieu: yes, the characters who populate the Montevideo Cinemateca do gather to discuss such issues as the correct calibration of projectors and how to cultivate the film spectator (on a deadpan radio show for “lovers of good cinema”), however predominantly, those expressions of film boffinry are subsumed into a realistic occupational background typified by such everyday tasks as office administration, finance, advertising, and building maintenance. If the film weren’t so lovingly and classically shot in small-scale black and white, its depiction of a dying institution would resemble the minutiae of a Frederick Wiseman documentary.

Emerging in a daze from the foyer as its doors are shut for the last time, we follow Jorge (Jorge Jellinek, rigid yet warm in the lead role) as he faces life after 25-years of devotion to celluloid. Unfortunately, A Useful Life is far less interesting beyond this point: having staved off parody for its first half, it allows an element of caricature to seep into its otherwise thoughtful portrayal of a working man who now must learn to function in a brave new world. Still, even then, Jorge is not an obsessional character who we can pity or place within satire or comedy; he’s a person whose humble service and dedication we can all relate to or learn from. Like the truck driver in Las acacias, Jorge arrives at a destination, and must find the courage to seize the day. Both films conclude on simple, humanist terms, though it must be said that there’s a sweetness and surrender to escapism in A Useful Life’s closing scenes—an eleventh hour flight of fancy to remind us, as only movies can, of the everlasting power of cinema, whether nurtured in a theatre or somewhere else.

‘Las acacias’, Dir. Pablo Giorgelli
Argentina/Spain, 2011; 84 minutes
In Spanish with English subtitles
Featuring: Germán de Silva, Hebe Duarte, Nayra Calle Mamani.
Screening: Auckland, Wellington.
‘A Useful Life’, Dir. Federico Veiroj
Uruguay/Spain, 2010; 67 minutes
In Spanish with English subtitles
Featuring: Jorge Jellinek, Manuel Martinez Carril, Paola Venditto.
Screening: Auckland, Wellington. For New Zealand International Film Festival dates, programme details, and screenings in other regions, visit nzff.co.nz.

Filed under: FILM, Film Festivals

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Tim Wong is the founding editor of The Lumière Reader. He specialises in film and visual arts criticism, has covered film festivals in Europe and North America, and was the only New Zealand-based critic invited to vote on Sight and Sound’s decennial “Ten Greatest Films of All Time” poll in 2012. He is also a freelance web and graphic designer. In 2015 he wrote and directed Out of the Mist.