Dir/scr:Juan Pittaluga. Uru-Fr. 2005. 80mins.
JuanPittaluga was associate producer and sound man on Jonathan Nossiter's fortunatewine documentary Mondovino, and Nossiter has returned the favour byassociate producing the Uruguayan director's first feature, Orlando Vargas.But although it is has moments of visual poetry and a certain atmosphericforce, this wilfully obscure film, which screened in Critics Week at Cannes,hardly makes one want to jump on the next plane to Montevideo to check out thelocal movie scene.
Astory of a bottled-up, taciturn French expatriate diplomat who disappears whileon a seaside holiday with his family, Orlando Vargas (our hero's name)seems to be aiming for edgy existential mystery in the style of earlyAntonioni. But that was then and this is now, and detached from any real socialor geographical grounding in the characters' life or work, the exercise feelsdated.
Outsideof co-production territory France, where the film is guaranteed a smallarthouse run, Orlando Vargas' prospects are likely to be dim, though itmay appeal to resilient cineaste distributors, and is likely to get furtherfestival exposure.
Talland shaven-headed, permanently dressed (even on the beach) in dark suit andopen-necked white shirt, Mr Vargas is a bit of an enigma. It's only graduallythat we realise that he's a diplomat, rather than a banker or lawyer, and evenhis French nationality is unclear at first.
Inthe first part - set, we assume, in Montevideo - he refuses to sign anapparently important document, is apparently threatened by a governmentofficial because of it, goes to the theatre, drinks too much whisky, and failsto communicate with his wife and son, or anyone else. He seems also to have aplain-clothed policeman on his case; but when the family eventually leave foran isolated, windswept beach resort in northern Uruguay, close to the borderwith Brazil, there is no real feeling that Orlando is on the run.
Thejourney - filmed in painfully slow detail - takes the family into the night,and into an atmosphere of slowly increasingly menace as they pass an abandonedcar, stop for something to eat at a roadside bar that turns out to be abrothel, and are held up by a character with a weeping eye at an improvisedtollbooth.
Whenthe family finally reaches their rented beach house at the almost deserted,end-of-the-line resort, Orlando goes off for a walk - and never returns. Thelast time we see him, he is drinking whisky in a beach-shack bar, asking thebarman if he prefers pine trees or palm trees. Clearly a wounded, difficult man- as his wife will admit at one point - Orlando is absent when he's present, sowhen he disappears, his absence is clearly supposed to become an oppressivepresence in its own right.
Butalthough the wife's anxiety and her son's mute suffering are rendered clearlyenough, the film's extreme reticence irritates us out of any real emotionalengagement with their ordeal. We see the ebb and flow of the waves, whosecrashing sound comes to dominate a soundtrack that otherwise relies on therepeated ironic counterpoint of a popular Mexican song, Fallaste Corazon.
Thereis some striking photography, which stresses the characters' lack ofconnection, framing them on different visual planes, and focussing on possiblyrelevant symbolic clues - a dead seal on the beach, the red and green tops wornby Alice, Orlando's wife. But in allowing mood to count more than plot orcharacter, questions more than answers, Orlando Vagas is like itscentral character - frustrating us through its extreme, obtuse refusal to openup.
Les Films du Rat