Touring back road Argentina with a dying hit man
For his third film Spanish director Javier Rebollo want to Argentina and logged 25,000 kilometers with his cast and crew making a road movie about a dying hit man and a 40-something woman estranged from her family, whom he picks up at a gas station. El muerto y ser feliz (the Spanish title) has qualities to recommend it to film festival audiences, such as a quirky plot-line, an inventive sound design, and vivid 16mm. film images, but Rebollo’s movie winds up being flat and unmemorable. There are a lot of road movies, and this one’s improvisational story hasn’t much discernible shape. This isn’t competition for, say, Carlos Sorín’s charming little films set in Patagonia. Sorín knows the territory better and his humanism is clearer.
Rebollo starts out well with a scene of lively banter between his protagonist, Santos (Spanish veteran actor José Sacristán) and a young nurse (Valeria Alonso), sitting in a sunny park in a raincoat with his pajamas and slippers. Santos is a character out of Pablo Larraín: he probably worked for Perón, and then for the military, and now for the highest bidder. Now he is ridden with cancer, carrying three tumors, and his negotiation with the nurse is for a portable ice chest full of morphine vials. He’s using money he’s received for a last hit, which he has little intention of carrying out. As played by Sacristán, Santos has an aura of mystery and menace that is, however, neutralized by his dire condition. He’s an interesting hcaracter, but he has nowhere to go, and hints of a beady-eyed man who hired the hit Jorge Jellinek, Federico Veiroj’s A Useful Life), haunting him at various locations don’t create any suspense. Nor does his relationship with Érika (Roxana Blanco), the woman he picks up, develop. They get close enough to sleep in the same room (but separate beds) and for her to give him his morphine injections, but there’s not much emotion. A constant, often competition voiceover, by two different people, strives to make up for the lack of action on screen, and serves as a vehicle for Rebollo’s aggressively intellectual style and ever-present irony, but can be annoying, particularly when it competes with and contradicts the loud dialogue simultaneously spoken by the actors. This contradiction is the point, of course, but Rebollo’s self-conscious cleverness may work for some but will be a turnoff for many.
Perhaps the ultimate interest of The Dead Man is the literal accuracy of the film’s observations along its meandering path. Highlights include a ruined resort area a narrator calls “a strange mix of paradise and apocalypse” (which could go for the whole narrative) and the Cordoba resort town of La Cumbrecita (with its dwindling population of elderly Germans, clearly ex-Nazis, later followed by an extended visit to the desolate northern province of Santiago del Estero. Desolation, boredom, and a kind of zen peace blend, even though Santos is packing heat and threatens to use it, for something, such as to put a dog they’ve accidentally run over out of its misery. Dogs are a running theme in this offbeat travalogue. Derelict mutts are found at every gas station, and the head of Érika’s family (Carlos Lecuona), whom they visit, a return to a fairly posh country home for her after a seven-year absence, is a dog breeder pledged to developing (with Nazi inspiration?) a unified master race of superior canines, while eliminating all the dogs with any defect.
The relationship between Santos and Érika could have become moving, and the trip does become more intense toward the end with the use of an ironic folksong about fables vs. realities composed by the director, but the tricks and ironies that were fun initially are, after so many miles, now threadbare and one would have preferred some stronger payoff than riding off into the sunset in an old Ford Falcon station wagon. The occasional switch of sound angle and cutoff of sound to silence are stylistic devices that are interesting artistically, but, like the dueling voiceovers, undercut the kind of gentle humanity that Sorín has drawn out of Argentina’s desolate spaces.
Lola Mayo collaborated on the improvised script; she worked also on the director’s 2006 What I Know About Lola, set in Paris. Salvador Roselli also collaborated. Roselli worked on the scripts o f those other Argentine road movies, Bombon El Perro (2004), Liverpool (2008) and Las Acacias (2011), with Carlos Sorín, LIsandro Alonso, and Pablo Giorgelli, respectively. Santiago Racaj’s 16mm. cinematography makes the most of the locales and the film’s vibrant grainy look.
The Dead Man and Being Happy, 94min., debuted at San Sebastiaán, where José Sacristán won the Best Actor award. Rebollo’s 2009 Madrid nocturne Woman Without Piano won him the Best Director prize at the same festival. The film is included in the Main Slate of the 50th New York Film Festival (Oct. 2012), where it was screened for this review. The rich sound design by Pelayo Gutiérrez and Dani Fontrodona was brilliantly if overbearingly on display in the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center, which the director in a Q&A confirmed is an unbeatable venue. For sound and image, the Walter Reade, still ably managed by Glenn Raucher, is indeed peerless.
Director: Javier Rebollo
Stars: Valeria Alonso, Roxana Blanco, Lisa Caligaris
Runtime: 92 min
Country: Spain, France, Argentina