The swampy backwaters of the Tigre delta makes for an uneasy backdrop for Anita Piterbarg’s atmospheric debut feature length from the production team behind the Oscar winning ‘El Secreto de sus Ojos’.
It’s Viggo Mortensen’s first foray into Spanish speaking, on celuloid at least. It’s well documented that the actor spent part of his childhood here, firstly in Córdoba and Chaco, then later in Buenos Aires, and has maintained an affinity with the country, as an ardent supporter of the San Lorenzo football team and aficionado of Argentine culture. According to the actor he felt at home on set, having regularly taken the Tigre-bound train for fishing trips as a child.
The film offers an opportunity for Mortensen to flex both his adoptive porteño muscles (his Spanish is flawless) and acting dexterity, playing the characters of two starkly contrasting Argentine brothers, in both lifestyle choice and temperament.
It centres on Agustín, a successful doctor with his own practice, married to the beautiful Claudia (Soledad Villamil) and on the verge of adopting a newborn baby together. Yet happiness eludes him. His unease at the boisterous playing of a group of toddlers in his waiting room and his preference for sharing time with cans of Schneider beers and the four walls of the spare room over his thoughts with his wife suggests trouble in domestic paradise and a reticence to accept the stifling hand he feels he’s been dealt.
A chance visit from his terminally ill out of town twin brother Pedro offers him a one-time get out of jail free card and the break he’s been craving for. An audacious proposition to help end his life and to take over his identity for a sum of money. While Pedro takes a bath in the flat, a bloody coughing fit ensues. Agustin’s snap decision leaves him with blood on his hands and a corpse in his bathtub. With his wife out of town, he is able to makes a seamless transition and heads for the island, stepping into Pedro’s river sodden espadrilles, and turning his back on his life as Agustín.
As the protagonist clumsily muddles his way through making acquaintances with the various characters relevant to the life he’s adopted, Piterbarg plays with the subtle differences between the two brothers’ demeanours, emphasising the austere and hostile winter backdrop of the Tigre to mirror the locals’ distrust and animosity in their reactions towards Agustín in what they interpret as a curious change in Pedro’s behaviour.
The opening scene, shows Pedro’s honey beehives, and metaphors involving the colony and order are present throughout. Pedro appears to have developed a close friendship with a local girl, who helps him introduce a new queen to the colony, deftly squashing the defective one between her gloved fingers. “If a colony is not working well, the queen must be replaced.”
We get a sense of Agustín adopting a similarly callous approach, flippantly replacing his barren wife in the city for the local girl Rosa, referred to as ‘la pichoncita’ (baby bird), with whom he consummates the relationship his brother had failed to.
Seemingly everyone has a plan and a role to perform, worker bee fashion, yet it becomes increasingly clear that Agustín isn’t at all clear of his own. His unease at the uncertainty of his predicament is palpable and his unsustainable efforts to pass as his brother leave him exposed and trapped by the messy circumstances of the underworld his brother inhabited and he then inherits.
The film clearly boasts an impressive budget, with a multinational production team, headed by 20th Century Fox and with support from Spain and France. With polished performances from Daniel Fanego and Javier Godino in supporting roles, and Moria Casan’s daughter, Sofia Gala, cast as Rosa, the first half shows all the promise of a film capable of following in the cinematic footsteps of ‘El Secreto de sus Ojos’. Yet it’s the length that lets it down. At three minutes shy of two hours, the plot loses momentum and intensity after the hour and a quarter mark, and the underwhelming and somewhat disappointing ending points to a lack of risk-taking by playing it safe.
Despite being a predominantly Argentine project both in terms of direction and collaboration, ultimately it fails to transmit the essence of the country’s cultural identity in any great depth, at times too polished and obvious in places, and less about personal interpretation.
Perhaps the global success and Academy Award of ‘El Secreto…’ and the newfound status of contemporary Argentine cinema both on home turf and internationally, has come at the cost of no longer solely appealing to a local audience. The model of an Argentine film geared for export is one that’s here to stay, and I’m prepared to bet my devalued pesos on it.