Dir: Adolfo Aristarain. Arg-Sp. 2002. 113mins.
A graceful, intelligent and humorous portrait of a sixty-something couple forced to rebuild their lives, Common Places (Lugares Communes) confirms the director-actor team of Adolfo Aristarain and Federico Luppi as San Sebastian favourites. Very warmly received at the festival, the film, which opened in Argentina earlier this month, will find its most appreciative audiences in Spanish-speaking territories. Elsewhere the low-key subject and classical style - which some audiences will find old-fashioned - make it unlikely to ride on the cult status of Argentine cinema. However, further festival exposure could guide it towards upscale older viewers, especially greying 1960s survivors, if bolstered by critical support and awards recognition. In Argentina, where it opened on Sept 12 and is now playing on 36 screens it has taken just over $53,000.
Fernando (Luppi), a university professor in his early sixties, is a left-wing intellectual full of mild melancholy at the cynicism afflicting his country. Still, he and his beautiful Spanish-born wife, Lili (Mercedes Sampietro) lead a contented, affluent lifestyle until Fernando receives brusque notice of compulsory retirement. Despite their anxiety, the couple takes a long-planned trip to Madrid, where they were political refugees in the 1970s and where their son, Pedro (Carlos Santamaria), still lives with his wife and family. The visit is painful. It brings home Fernando's sense of permanent exile and the chasm between Europe's First World prosperity and the chaotic world back home. It also triggers a bitter quarrel when he accuses his son of selling out and the two part on bad terms.
Back in Buenos Aires, he receives an intriguing proposal: an acquaintance wants to part-exchange his remote farmhouse for an apartment in the city. Reluctantly, Fernando is persuaded by Lili to take up the offer. With its pantiled roof and lavender fields, this farm might have come straight out of one of Peter Mayles' books and indeed the couple looks set to live out an archetypal modern fantasy, as they plan to distil flower essences for French perfumiers. Ever faithful to his ideals, Fernando names the place 1789 (the house sign is painted on a tricolour background) and establishes a collective whose workers will share the profits.
What makes Common Places (the Spanish title contains a similar double meaning) more than commonplace is the humane, elegant screenplay. Fernando's ironic narration comments on the proceedings and instils them with the source novel's intellectual edge - the story loses some of its energy after his character falls ill and moves to the sidelines. Subtly set within the political context of Argentina, the film portrays both a particular culture and a universal dilemma. The director states he is trying "to reproduce the conversations that might take place at my house after three bottles of wine" and his characters and situations will be instantly recognisable to viewers from a certain tranche of society worldwide.
The relationships are drawn with comedy and restraint, with many excellent individual scenes: in one of the best, the sexagenarian demonstrates world-class flirting technique with an attractive librarian, while finally affirming his profound unspoken love for his wife. Performances, headed by Luppi (familiar to international audiences from The Devil's Backbone and John Sayles's fine Spanish-language drama Men With Guns) are all top-drawer.
Prod cos: Tornasol, Shazam, Pablo Larguia Producciones
Sp dist: Altafilms
Arg dist: DC
Int'l sales: Tornasol Films
Exec prods: Mariela Besuievsky, Carlos Andrada
Prods: Gerardo Herrero, Aristarain, Javier Lopez Blanco
Scr: Aristarain, Kathy Saavedra, based on the novel Rebirth by Lorenzo F Aristarain
Cinematography: Porfirio Enriquez
Prod des: Abel Facello
Ed: Fernando Pardo
Main cast: Fernando Luppi, Mercedes Sampietro, Arturo Puig, Carlos Santamaria