Screen Tests

-- Michael Mills

Acclaimed Argentine filmmaker Maria Luisa Bemberg died in the middle of making El Imposter (The Impostor), and the project was taken over by her assistant director Alejandro Maci, who made it his feature debut. Set in the pampas outside Buenos Aires, the story -- a kind of gothic fairy tale that takes place in the '30s -- is based on Silvina Ocampo's novel of the same name. It's a stylized, literary story -- one that, at least in this version, doesn't translate well to the screen.

We first hear of the young Sebastian Heredia (Antonio Birabent) as we eavesdrop on a conversation between his concerned parents and their doctor, a family friend. Disturbed that their twentysomething son has locked himself up in their country home and is refusing to communicate with his family, the Heredias convince their friend to send his son Juan to suss out the situation. Juan (Walter Quiroz) isn't particularly sophisticated, and his cover story -- that the purpose of his visit is to study birds -- doesn't fool Sebastian for a moment.

The problem is, we don't know what to think of Juan's agenda either. Were he and Sebastian ever good friends? Does Juan care about Sebastian's mental health? It's not clear. At first Juan doesn't find out much at all about Sebastian -- only that he's frustrated at being unable to remember his dreams. Juan, on the other hand, begins to have nightmares. We do learn that Sebastian had a failed love affair with a woman named Maria Olsen, and in fact a Danish family by that name lives in town. But the local pharmacist's niece -- who calls herself Teresita -- wears a necklace that says "Maria." Juan, who starts up a flirtation with Teresita, wonders if perhaps she's Sebastian's Maria. And who is that beautiful, silent, young blond woman who flits by from time to time?

A whole lot of mystery but not much direction. The cheesy visual effects that punctuate the film -- colored filters and negative images -- distract us rather than lead us further into the story. The Impostor has its roots in the nineteenth-century gothic tradition, which concocted ghosts and hallucinations and feverish dreams to indicate trouble in a character's unconscious. In our day such phenomena have been demystified by our understanding of psychology, not to mention decades of exposure to the films of Alfred Hitchcock. So when such a story manages to succeed this late in the century, it's because it's exquisitely told and because the emotional stakes are something we care about.

The press notes for The Imposter imply that Maci reworked parts of Bemberg's screenplay (the two share screenwriting credits with Jorge Goldenberg), but it's difficult to know whether Maci was hampered by having to follow in Bemberg's footsteps or whether he merely didn't know what he was doing. At any rate what's altogether missing is a sense of timing, particularly in the unfolding of details that lead to the central mystery. Instead the film meanders through the more banal details of Sebastian and Juan's time together, then dumps the more compelling developments into the final ten minutes. The only element that's truly haunting, in stretches, is Ricardo Aronovich's cinematography, particularly his images of an animal graveyard, which would illuminate anyone's nightmares. (Saturday, January 31, 2 p.m.)

-- Robin Dougherty

Michael Haneke wants you to rethink the way you experience cinematic violence -- the way you consider it, interpret it, feel it. With his 1997 film Funny Games, the Austrian writer-director succeeds wildly in that regard, fashioning an insidiously unsettling work that challenges -- and attempts to obliterate -- the notion of moviegoing passivity.

Funny Games opens innocently enough, with an aerial tracking shot of a sport-utility vehicle tooling along a road with a sailboat in tow. On the soundtrack we hear snippets of classical music, plus the voices of a man and a woman as they engage in a good-natured game of guess-the-composer/ guess-the-piece; moments later we see hands as they pop in discs and then eject them from the car's CD player. Significantly, though, Haneke takes a minute, perhaps longer, before cutting to actual faces. Finally he shows us an unextraordinary-looking couple, Georg and Anna, probably in their late thirties, and their son Georgie, about age twelve. They're en route to their well-manicured -- and apparently isolated -- lakeside vacation home. As soon as the family arrives, Georg and Georgie, with the help of their friend and neighbor Fred and Fred's young houseguest Paul, put the boat in the water. Fred and Paul split, and as father and son fuss around on the boat, Anna starts dinner preparations back at the house.

Seemingly out of the ether materializes shy, clumsy, clean-cut Peter, who, he explains to Anna, is also staying with Fred and Fred's wife Eva; roughly the same age as Paul (early twenties), Peter has popped by to borrow four eggs for Eva. Anna stops cutting up raw steak -- knives and dead meat figure prominently in Funny Games -- to oblige the request, but Peter breaks the eggs as he leaves -- an ominous portent of everything that follows, although we don't witness the "accident." Then as they discuss the prospect of Peter obtaining replacement eggs, he "accidentally" knocks a wireless phone in the sink, rendering it useless. Growing impatient, Anna wraps up new eggs just to get rid of the relentlessly polite Peter. He leaves, only to reappear moments later, this time accompanied by Paul. And when Georg and Georgie return to the house, Haneke has assembled his core cast in one spot to play out a terrifying drawing-room meditation on the nature of violence, both physical and psychological.

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