La Salamandra (2008/Pablo Agüero/Argentina) Debut
Opening Sequence : Inti (6) plays alone in his bath. Someone is heard offscreen coming in the house while he holds his breath under water. But the camera stays in the bathroom, observing the boy for a long time. Like a continuation of his game he hunts down the suspect noises, dripping wet, with a toy gun in hand, listening to the walls. We finally see the intruder, Alba, a young woman in the boy's room packing his clothes. She calls him by his name but he doesn't know her. When his grand mother comes back home, she immediately covers him with her shawl without a word.This clever wordless set up reveals a lot information on this family. The carefree innocence of the child, the surrogate maternal grandma, and the sudden unexpected return of the absent irresponsible mother.
Then Alba goes on in a long self-justifying rambling monologue, anticipating the questions and blames waiting in the silent eyes of her resentful mother and her alienated child. Her apologetic speech is hyper and discontinuous. She naively claims nobody can stop her to take her son down to Patagonia where an utopic life awaits them. She's obviously shook up and confused. Without ever spelling it out, we gather throughout the film that she was imprisoned during the years of dictatorship in Argentina, maybe for political reasons, maybe in a mental asylum.
Cut to Inti and Alba on a bus, on the road to Patagonia, skipping any explanations, negotiations, reasoning or warning to talk her out of this improvised journey. What spares us the unnecessary melodrama, also discredits the reality of this unquestioned mother-son bond, and the willingness of this boy to leave behind his usual comfort for some tiring vacations with an uncaring stranger...
The film is essentially centred on Inti's viewpoint, he's the protagonist always onscreen and limits what the audience sees to what this boy is able to perceive. Which emphasizes the role of the soundtrack, the unsteady camerawork and the offscreen events, assumed or suggested.
This reserved boy raised without parents is in the process of learning to read and needs serious formative structure to affirm his psychological development. Thus he asks a lot of embarassing questions and snoops around this messy international post-hippie community sporting free sex, unashamed nudity, drugs and all the New Wave trippy B.S. turning their egoistic trivial hedonist pleasures into cosmical importance (Karma, Feng Shui, anarchy, revolution...)
Pablo Agüero, the filmmaker debuting with this film, grew up in this remote region of extreme south of Latin America. I don't know if he was a native or if his parents were part of this hippie village, but the portrait of these local peasants is quite unflattering. Their children, left on their own, are violent, territorial and hateful. The new comers are threatened, exploited, their houses burnt down...
Alba lives in a fantasized dream and denies systematically the evil in people and the misery of her life. She rent her night stays for sexual favours to men who happily manipulate her innocent and careless sense of reality. And Inti witnesses the negligent "prostitution" of his mother, night after night, forcing him to take the adult responsibility of their family nucleus, with his clumsy juvenile attempts. When Inti begs to sleep in his mom's bed because he's scared at night (both for being alone and for what she does with the landlord) she explains he must confront his Oedipal impulse, which theoretical reasoning doesn't appease the instinctive phobia of a child...
Inti holds on to the transitory father figures in orbit around his mother, to pick up advice and project himself in a future to look up to. This theme of an "orphaned" child raising him/herself was also present in the wonderful La Influencia (2007/Pedro Aguilera) at last year's Cannes Festival (Quinzaine 2007). And in this year's selection, Versailles (2008/Pierre Schoeller) tells the story of a boy raised by a marginal hobo. It's also an atmosphere we find in Cria Cuervos (1976/Saura) or Nobody Knows (2004/Kore-eda) with a little more attention to the sensibility of a child's vision of the world.
The crowd scenes of raving hippies, moving from one room to the next, from one conversation to the next, from inside to outside... seem inspired by Béla Tarr's famous ensemble mise-en-scène.
The hand held camera always on the move is an interesting device to express the astray confusion of both this clueless mother and these hallucinated hippie generation. But its execution might be a little too ambitious at times. Certain gesture and dialogue start on cue when crossing the path of the camera, in the style of a De Palma steadycam long take, and it comes out too self-conscious and calculated for this less sophisticated mise-en-scène. Certain events are too conveniently cut out of the film altogether with dubious ellipses which doesn't necessarily serve the asceticism of the dramatic narration.