Dir: Esteban Sapir. Arg. 2007. 90mins.
Esteban Sapir's second feature is an intriguing and beautifully-made oddity - a largely silent, black-and-white fantasy that seems inspired in equal measure by Fritz Lang's Metropolis, FW Murnau's The Last Laugh, 1920s surrealism and Charlie And The Chocolate Factory.
Made for a reported budget of $1m, it displays an extraordinary visual imagination on slender resources. On the debit side, Sapir skirts dangerously close to whimsical kitsch. There is also a sense that, at 90 minutes, the film has been stretched to a length that it doesn't necessarily warrant. (Bunuel and Dali's Un Chien Andalou, one of the many silent movies which Sapir references, was under 20 minutes long.)
The Aerial looks like a risk proposition outside festivals, but adventurous niche distributors may relish the chance to handle a project quite as quirky as this. With its emphasis on artifice and its fantastical storytelling style, it is certainly in a very different register from the Argentinian films (often dealing with social and economic crisis) that have found such favour in recent years on the international festival circuit.
The film will require very careful handling if its signals are to be picked up by any one other than devotees of art house fare. The challenge will be to convince audiences that this is an accessible and emotionally-charged family melodrama, not just a self-conscious exercise in silent movie pastiche.
Other film-makers who've ventured into similar territory (for instance, Guy Maddin with Cowards Bend The Knee and The Saddest Music In The World or Aki Kaurismaki with Juha) have enjoyed cult success without really threatening to crossover into the mainstream.
The film is set in an Orwellian-style futuristic world, albeit one in which everyone dresses as if they are still in the 1920s. The citizens have had their voices stolen. They are under the control of the villainous media magnate Mr TV. They watch shows produced by him and eat TV meals bearing his logo.
A little girl called Ana is a near-neighbour of 'The Voice,' a femme fatale who sings on popular shows but - for reasons never fully explained - doesn't have a face. To complicate matters further, her young son doesn't have any eyes. Mr TV has designs on 'The Voice' and aims to use her to further his control of an already docile population.
Ana befriends the boy without eyes. Her father (recently fired from his job) and mother (a voluptuous, chain-smoking nurse) come up with a plan to thwart Mr TV. This entails floating off to the snow capped mountains, repairing an old broadcasting station, and harnessing the voice of the boy without eyes.
As such a summary might suggest, the plot is hokum. The visuals and music are what matters. Sapir, who has been working in commercials and pop promos since his debut feature Picado Fino in the mid-1990s, uses keyhole lenses, Soviet-style montage sequences, old-fashioned matte shots, chiaroscuro lighting and the kind of hand-crafted trompe l'oeil effects that have rarely been seen since the days of pioneers like Georges Melies and RW Paul.
There are plentiful subtitles. The music does much of the work that you'd expect the dialogue and performances to do in a 'talkie,' signalling sadness, danger, anger etc. The director is occasionally self-indulgent. It may be winter in the city, but do we really need to see quite so many snowflakes'
Nonetheless, he has a protean and playful imagination. Whether the scenes of characters floating away over the city, or of fans working themselves into a lather of excitement at a boxing match, or of mad scientists fiddling with bizarre machinery, the set-pieces are confidently handled. Even if the story doesn't make much sense, Sapir ratchets up the tension in effective fashion, throwing in chases and dramatic fight sequences.
The villains are especially well-conceived. There's the Mouseman, a rodent-toothed, long tailed gargoyle who is bother lecherous and extremely violent, and Mr TV himself, a megalomaniac with a hint of Lang's Dr Mabuse about him.
It's hard for the actors to convey much with such sketchily-written roles. Julieta Cardinali brings a sultry, vamp-like quality to her role as the nurse while Sol Moreno, as Ana, has a certain doe-eyed charm. There is a satirical undertow to the storytelling. In his idiosyncratic way, the director is attacking media manipulation, overly compliant consumers, and rapacious tycoons.
Ultimately, though, he is far more interest in concocting eye-popping visual effects than in making a political statement.
Pablo Barbieri Carrera