Thursday Till Sunday aka De Jueves a Domingo

Santi Ahumada plays Lucía in Thursday till Sunday

Dominga Sotomayor’s remarkable debut feature is a sotto voce drama about a family on a road trip. Proceeding by suggestion rather than assertion, it is in some respects similar to Pablo Trapero’s early, soapy drama Familia Rodante. There are faint hints of the work of Carlos Reygadas in there too, as well as more than a touch of Claire Denis. This is not bad company to be mixing in.

If the long opening locked-camera shot through a bedroom window into a courtyard, where a family is loading a car with baggage and sleeping children, recalls Reygadas’s amazing up-comes-the-dawn opening to Silent Light, then the Claire Denis element is supplied by what follows, as we strain to work out just what sort of film we’re watching.

Mum and dad sit up front, the two kids sit in the back of the car clearly packed for the long haul. Bored car games like I Spy are played, the kids ask for stuff; the parents say no. It’s all very familiar.

But what sort of film is it? A road movie, it seems, with the family coming to some sort of new awareness of something or other by the end of the trip, perhaps. Then the camera gives us a nudge towards young Lucía in the back, long of leg and budding of breast. A girl just on the cusp of young womanhood. We look again at the parents in the front. He’s still handsome; she’s as pretty as she looked before – but on this second glance, having been nudged, we notice the her lips are pursed, and the husband isn’t quite looking at his wife. Something Is Up.

And then Sotomayor pulls right back and throws us back again into the interminable car journey. The sun is out, the roads are long, this is long-distance travel South American style, on big new roads that didn’t exist a generation before.

As the family travels from Santiago to the north the viewer is now with them but on a different journey, scavenging for clues. Suddenly everything looks like a metaphor – when the husband from out of nowhere makes the statement that the “sea belongs to everybody” is that something to do with his marriage being in trouble? What of the two pretty female hitch-hikers he unilaterally decides to pick up? And when young Lucía hits the hand-dryer in the restroom of a roadside pull-in and it delivers only a second of hot air. Another push, another second, and so on. Is that a metaphor too?

It probably isn’t. We’re being teased, in a film that has infected us with an idea upfront, and then left it to replicate. And here’s the thing, now it’s almost as if we’re generating the drama in this superficially featureless film, rather than Sotomayor or her actors. So when a VW Camper enters the scene and there’s a man on board whom the wife seems happy to see but the husband less so, we’re leaning forwards hungrily. Not much has actually happened but in dramatic terms the arrival of this old hippie wagon seems equivalent to the warm-up to the Battle of Helm’s Deep.

No, there are no CGI armies in this odd, small, in many ways very slight film. Big statements are nowhere to be seen. There are no acting gongs to be handed out either. Though they’re all faultless (particularly the kids, Emiliano Freifeld and Santi Ahumada) this is not an actors’ film – it’s almost Noh theatre in the functionality of its characters. Nor does the cinematography reflect inner mood, like it might if Wong Kar Wei were in charge – it’s sunny out the window when the film starts and that’s the way it stays, pretty much.

Indeed, the vast Chilean landscapes are apt – there’s really not much out there apart from sand and scrub. There’s also really not much going on in the car. Or on the face of Lucía the daughter, who is taking everything in nonetheless. Or at the campsites where they pitch their tents. Or in the river where they bathe.

Except there is. Claire Denis, mistress of deep emotional undertow, has a disciple.

Thursday till Sunday – at Amazon

I am an Amazon affiliate

© Steve Morrissey 2012

White Elephant

Fathers Julián and Nicolás patrol the shanty

London Film Festival, 2012-10-21

At a certain point in the career of a successful film-maker who isn’t working in the English language, you expect him or her to make a “breakout” film, the one that gets them noticed in the global multiplexes, the one that makes them some money. At this point in the career of Pablo Trapero, the Argentinean who gave us Familia Rodante, Lion’s Den and Carancho – all critical hits – you’s expect White Elephant to be that film. It isn’t. But that doesn’t mean it’s a disappointment. Quite the contrary.

Instead of taking the money and selling out, Trapero has taken what budget his status as a film-maker now entitles him to and he’s put it up on the screen. White Elephant is a big film aimed squarely at the domestic Argentinean market. It addresses Argentinean problems, though with a universality that means it translates. Does it top Carancho as his best film? I don’t know. But it is by a long way his most ambitious.

An epic drama set in the shantytown of Buenos Aires, it has a big cast, a wide geographical field of operations and mighty themes. It kicks off with two scenes that use immense sound – in one a man is in an MRI scanner as it clicks and bangs away. Scene two cuts to a boat growling ominously as it heads up river. And in comes Michael Nyman’s soundtrack, a beautiful plaintive Morricone-esqe thing faintly tinged with the mournfulness of the brass band.

White Elephant has proper actors too. If you’ve seen Carancho (and if you haven’t then you’ve missed an amazingly flavourful piece of South American noir), you’ll be familiar with Ricardo Darín and Martina Gusman, its stars. They’re back here, Darín playing a kind hard-headed priest working the shantytown that surrounds the abandoned hospital (the white elephant of the title) sitting like a metaphor for the stalled social projects of Argentina’s recent decades. Helping him in his Spencer Tracey efforts to house the homeless and wrest the drugs from the skull-faced youth is Luciana, a local volunteer (Gusman), a woman as selfless as she is beautiful.

Nicolás and Luciana
Nicolás and Luciana

Into the world of Father Julián and Luciana enters Father Nicolás (Jeremie Renier), a refugee from the up-river village we’ve seen wiped out by banditos. He’s in a state of shock, angry, confused, aware of the fact that Darín’s way, the Lord’s way, of turning the other cheek has just resulted in the extermination of an entire village of his flock.

And around these three the whole film turns – Father Julián the pragmatist, Father Nicolás the hothead, Luciana caught between the two. It makes for a brilliant recruiting campaign for the Catholic church, the selflessness, the fixity of purpose, the fighting of the good fight even when doubt is stalking the alleyways. “It’s easy to be a martyr and a hero,” says Julián to Nicolás at one point. “The hardest thing is working day after day, knowing your work is meaningless.”

Don’t worry, this isn’t a film full of speeches like that. Instead Trapero gives us beautifully composed shots and scenes, bravura camerawork à la Scorsese (one tracking shot into a meth lab is straight out of Goodfellas). This is a good-looking film. And just to make sure we don’t get bored while the film expatiates on the nature of faith, goodness, religion (both official and magical), Trapero takes us ever further into the heart of the slums, all the while building on plot arcs straight out of Douglas Sirk. Julián is dying of some brain malignancy, we have learned early on. Nicolás, a young good looking man of Daniel Craig aspect, is increasingly tempted by the ravishing Luciana. Secrets. Melodrama.

And to top all that Trapero gives us the big finish that the film has by stealth been working towards – the budget spent on catching a conflagration in the slums that looks so naturalistic that it must have been shot at some demonstration that got out of hand, surely?

A slow-burner, White Elephant takes its times working up an impressive head of dramatic steam, examining faith and duty as it goes in an unusually non-snide (though not naïve) way. Put another way – how refreshing it is to meet priests in a movie who aren’t either exorcists or kiddy-fiddlers.

White Elephant – at Amazon

I am an Amazon affiliate

© Steve Morrissey 2012