May 5, 2009


To coincide with TCM’s month-long series, Latino Images in Film, the n’er do wells here at Movie Morlocks will devote this week to an impassioned blog-a-thon on Latin American cinema (and Latin Americans in cinema…happy Cinco de Mayo, by the way). As it happens, my eyeballs have been drawn to a number of phenomenal Argentinian filmmakers recently, including Lucrecia Martel (whose mind-melting The Headless Woman gets a limited release in August) and the nomadic Lisandro Alonso. The lady I’d like to focus on here, though, has yet to land US distribution for either of her two superb features, and deserves far more of a spotlight: Celina Murga.

Murga was born in Paraná, in Argentina’s Entre Ríos Province. She fell for cinema after reveling in Godard’s Breathless, and raced to Buenos Aires at the age of 17 to enter film school. After gigs at a production company, her university, and as an assistant director, she completed her debut film in 2002. A remarkably assured feature, Ana and the Others (Ana y los Otros) nails the peculiar alchemy that takes place when returning to a hometown after years away. The familiar is turned strange, and Ana wanders her city like a bemused tourist, inquiring after a photo shop (no one remembers it), and deflecting questions about high-school classmates she barely remembers. Murga takes a distanced approach, filming Ana (Camila Toker) in long shot, either in static frames or steady pans and tracks. Her motivations are unclear, and it is only well into the feature before we realize she’s back in town for a class reunion.

The film is marked by a touching uncertainty, the loss of home analogous to a lost version of yourself. It’s eventually revealed that her main reason for coming home is to search for an old flame, Mariano. As she sifts through her memories, of fainting at her first (and second) kiss, while also selling her family home, past, present and future merge together in a deeply moving way. Her search for Mariano is clearly a search for home, for rootedness, and it’s the maturity of this debut that keeps their reunion from our view. Coping with the past is an on-going process, and Murga wisely declines to give closure. A personal work, it’s set in Paraná and echoes Murga’s own travels, and resonates, I’m sure, with just about anyone who’s left home. (Ana and the Others was released on DVD by VeneVision, but is now out of print. It’s readily available on various online retailers though).

Five years later, Ms. Murga poked her back onto the festival scene with A Week Alone (2007), another enigmatic narrative located in the Entre Rios province, but this time set in a gated community. With their parents away on vacation, an extended family of teens and toddlers wander around their posh existence with bemused obliviousness. The world outside is a stranger. Maria, the oldest, had actually been to Buenos Aires, but didn’t like it. In controlled tracking shots similar to Ana’s, Murga delineates their daily routines with exactitude, from the order they walk to school to their instinctive reliance they have on their maid (ask them to make their own Nesquik, and they flinch). With the complex’s armed guards and pools, it feels like a fascist club Med. Their life is a closed-circuit, and as such, a romance flickers between two cousins. Outside entanglements don’t exist.

This theme of upper-class isolation is subsumed under the beauty of Murga’s patient eye, and the studied naturalness of the performers. Cahiers du Cinema published a diary from Murga, and she explains how she weaves this spell:

In my shoots, I often have the sensation that I am capturing something unique, that I’ve got to be constantly on the look out for that moment of unique truth that an actor might just produce. I say truth in the sense of the real…that I’m also giving documentary testimony to what’s going on…beyond the limits of the screen. This doesn’t mean there’s less construction or less control. I think that has to do with the search for naturalism. At times I feel like my work is all about the preparation of fertile ground so the truth that’s hidden in a scene…can really spring forth and blossom.

This formulation echoes Orson Welles’ famous quote that, “The director is simply the audience…his job is to preside over accidents.” Prepare the ground, wait for miracles. This rigorousness and openness, her exacting framings coupled with an openness to improvisation and other “accidents” is the tension that gives her work such amazing vitality. The characters avoid any stereotyping, as Murga teases out their natural charisma. This is not a hatchet job on the blue bloods, but a serious, nuanced interrogation of a class cold war.

This vitality comes to the fore when the maid’s brother, Fernando, intrudes upon the children’s upper class life. They don’t know how to speak to him, leave them out of their games, and give him a wide berth. The only figure capable of bridging this gap in the film is the youngest girl, Sofi. Murga lays out her humanist tendencies throughout – sleeping in the maid’s room, questioning her about her religion (this subdivision is thoroughly secular) and urging her to display her singing voice. As with Ana, there is no tidy conclusion. The class fissures crack wide open, but Sofi offers a hint of reconciliation, or at least understanding. It’s a moment of grace in this otherwise hauntingly ambiguous social fable.

While she was busy completing A Week Alone, Murga was selected for the 2008/2009 Rolex Mentor and Protege Arts Initiative, where she was paired with Martin Scorsese as a mentor. Along with getting his feedback on her work, she was able to accompany him on the set of his next feature, Shutter Island, which is the period from which her Cahiers diary was derived. Scorsese offered to help Murga shop A Week Alone, and his name tops the credits (“Martin Scorsese Presents”). She’s working on a new project, The Third Side of the River, which is about a minor who confesses to a murder, and the distinct possibility that he is lying about it. It would seem to extend her interest in childhood, the ambiguity of motivations, and looks to continue her social critique of the Argentinain state. With the influence of Scorsese in her head, this could be incredible. Bring it on.