Dir: Ariel Rotter. Argentina/France/Germany. 84 mins.
A city lawyer's mid-life crisis becomes an existential odyssey in Ariel Rotter's second feature. Politely received at its Berlinale press showing, this competition entry is intriguing and thought-provoking without ever being truly involving. There is much to admire in the formal devices that the film employs to track the gradual unravelling of its unremarkable everyman Juan, the way his bourgeois life slides out of joint while on a routine business trip to north-eastern Argentina and enters a kind of alternate reality, a suspended dream-state.
The problem is that we never quite know what is going on inside Juan's head, and his slide from one assumed identity to another, while it has symbolic resonance, never takes on much emotional urgency.
The film's high commercial risk-factor is reflected in the long list of co-producers and backers in the opening credits (which segues, wittily, into the eye-test that begins the action).
These include sales company Celluloid Dreams, as well as the Berlinale's own World Cinema Fund. Distributors are likely to be as polite as the Berlinale audience, though some may take a chance on a well-crafted film that provides cineaste audiences with plenty to mull over.
Still, this title is unlikely to reach as far as the 15 or so territories so far notched up by another recent slice of Argentinian mid-life existentialism, Fabien Bielinsky's El Aura, which has better dramatic bone-structure as well as a more compelling central performance.
Julio Chavez, who plays 46-year-old Juan Desouza, is a fine actor - something he demonstrated in last year's El Custodio, another Argentinian arthouse project with a raft of backers and incubators.
He plays Desouza as a mild man who is troubled by some crisis that he seems unable to articulate, which is fuelled by his bedridden father's illness and his wife's announcement that she is pregnant, and crystallises into action when the guy sitting next to Juan on the long-distance coach that is taking him to his business meeting in the Entre Rios region suddenly dies of a heart attack.
After his meeting, Juan lets the bus back to Buenos Aires leave without him and checks into a hotel in this dusty provincial town under an assumed name. Later, he moves to another hotel and takes on the name of the dead man - whose lying-in at the local funeral parlour he also attends.
Gradually, he realises that he can become just about anybody by saying little and reflecting people's assumptions about him. The real world, as represented by the gridplan city, is left behind as Juan returns to nature - eating apricots from trees, watching adolescent girls bathe in the river, and having a passionate affair with a woman who may or may not be the dead man's wife.
Rotter and DoP Marcelo Lavintman rely on a reticent fixed camera that obstinately refuses to enter into the state of mind of its character except in one handheld night scene.
There is no music outside of one bar scene, and as in El Custodio and El Aura, the sound design relies on disorienting, amplified natural sounds, like breathing and footsteps. But this is no po-faced style exercise: there's plenty of humour, and the ending exudes humanity.