A ravishing portrait of loss and nature set in the evocative, strange Parana Delta wetlands near Buenos Aires, Santiago Santiago Otheguy's La Leon is a very impressively piece visually though marred by its prosaic storytelling.
Shot in beautifully sculpted black and white widescreen, the movie establishes the Argentine-born, French-taught Otheguy as an exceedingly promising figure in the burgeoning Argentine nouvelle vague with Lucrecia Martel and Lisandro Alonso, whose festival favourite Los Muertos appears the dominant influence.
This French and Argentine co-production is bound to stir favourable attention from other festivals, museum programmers and the upscale arthouse market after it premiered in Panorama at Berlin, both theatrically and in ancillary revenues.
Behind the financial and institutional clout of Martin Karmitz's MK2, the Spanish-language film is likely to get a more aggressive push in Paris than Buenos Aires. In the US, prospects are less certain. The most likely comparison, Los Muertos, for instance, remains without a theatrical distributor.
Otheguy is a disciple of Eric Rohmer, and the other primary visual influence appears the work of American Terrence Malick. Like Malick's The Thin Red Line or The New World, La Leon limns a lost paradise, an Eden spoiled by stupidity, lust and homophobic intolerance.
If the film feels disappointingly less than the sum of its parts, Otheguy is a technically dazzling portraitist. As a storyteller, his penchant for the ineffable makes him almost too opaque and elliptical for his own good.
The movie has virtually no plot to speak of, more a succession of vignettes and intertwined tales. The movie's sensitive, quietly stoic young protagonist Alvaro (Roman) works in the remote marshlands reachable only by boat. The title refers to the water taxi, captained by the brutal, insensitive El Turu (Valenzuela, of Martel's La Cienega), that ferries tourists and workers to the island community.
Alvaro is gay; the revelation unfolds in one of the movie's most ravishing scenes, a tender, provocatively filmed sexual encounter with a rich boat owner. He is a quiet, humble kid, drawn to the land and several of its inhabitants, particularly his relationship with an old man Iribarren (Munoz) who is his surrogate father.
The movie's tension derives from how the thuggish El Turu turns increasingly violent and vengeful toward Alvaro. Like Rohmer, the framing is precise and meticulous. Otheguy is very good at atmosphere and location.
La Leon is primarily a visual work that invites a total surrender to the power, originality and freedom of Otheguy's visual constructions and rhyming patterns.
The water imagery, with its textures of light and reflective, mirror images, creates a series of striking tableaux. The recurrent Christ imagery is best achieved in one stunning widescreen shot of a man wading in the shallow end of the water who as he moves from the left to right side of the screen appears to walk atop the glistening shore.
The imagery is too often unmoored to the emotional content. Alvaro remains too far outside our grasp, too unknowable, to allow the imagery and story to provocatively merge.
Ana Maria Montalvo