Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Apr 13, 2017 6:44 pm 
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Tough lives

Set in southern Patagonia, Emiliano Torres' The Winter/El Invierno focuses on a young man, Jara, (Argentine Cristian Salguero of Paulina) brought in to replace the aging foreman of a vast estate, Evans (Chilean Alejandro Sieveking (The Club) . As winter comes on Evans, who's been forced to retire and has no future, mysteriously returns and tries to force Jara to leave.

Some critics found this to have an unnecessary slow festival style that this time I thought fitted the material like a glove. Neil Young of Hollywood Reporter calls it "a compendium of brooding slow cinema tropes," and Mike D'Angelo, who's much nicer on Letterbox'd ("Solid Argentine debut"), says "he's got the current languorous arthouse rhythm down pat." But even if it's "slow" and the contrasted men, the old and the young, are exceedingly laconic, it (to quote D'Angelo again) turns "into a low-keyed thriller" when it " really sparks in the second half." It becomes a desperate Wild West battle between the two men, one of whom we've followed for a while, who disappears and is sensed only in what we see of him later through the other's eyes.

“This is a story of survivors," Torres himself has written, "in a corner of the world where time has stopped and winter seems never ending, where isolation, alienation and that strange and violent harmony we call nature conditions everything.” Those dramatic statements - the vast open spaces seem to inspire them - aren't wholly true in Torres' own story, since time is moving on, not just for the men but for the estancia, and it's not exactly nature that "conditions everything" at this point but the global economy making the place outmoded. To assert that fact, as Torres' story does at the end, isn't a needless invasion of modernity, because these are gauchos, cowboys; and cowboys are always outmoded, a fact that it's a tradition of the modern Western to take note of, I believe. It shouldn't be overstressed, though, because the struggle for men to survive in this barren land and the individual battle between Jara and Evans is classic desperate thriller stuff of men in extremis.

What comes through strong and clear is a harsh and chilly atmosphere, the quintessential mood of austere ranching in the Patagonian waste. The men wear berets and rugged layered clothing that might serve as a model for the Filson company of Seattle. No fleece or down. They ride pretty horses. Jara, the newcomer, has to rope a young one and make it his own. They saddle up with minimal gear, a network of ropes, and they work from five a.m. to five p.m. herding sheep on horseback with dogs.

Neil Young bewails the emptiness of the plot. Actually even in the first twenty minutes there's a fight, a whore's brought in to entertain the bored men and they get wine and dancing; new owners appear, speaking French, with guests, bewailing competition from China and explaining that the extent of the property is "enorme." And while Jara and Evans are already eyeing each other, Jara is whittling a small wood horse whose significance will appear later, as will that of the French visitors and of Evans' late night violent drunken episode. As D'Angelo points out, "Torres excels at introducing details that will have payoffs but don't advertise themselves as setups."

As Jara Cristian Salguero sports a wild, unruly look though it falls to him to maintain order. He arrives with other ranch hands as if he's just another peon but he has many skills, which the actor recruited was expected to have too, as shown in the casting call notice shown below.

You feel the atmosphere here in your bones. This is a tale worthy of Cormac McCarthy or Annie Proulx. Torres has frequently been an assistant director, and he has written scripts for a number of Latin American directors. This is his feature debut, and it's a very promising one. Once again the arid terrain of Patagonia has proven cinematically fertile.

Winter/El Invierno, 95 mins., debuted at San Sebastián 21 Sept. 2016. Also Zurich, Palm Springs, Villeurbanne Festival Reflets du cinéma ibérique et latino-américain. New Horizons in Poland coming 4 Aug. 2017. Screened for this review as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival.
SCHEDULE SFIFF: Apr. 14, 2017 at 8:30 pm, Alamo Drafthouse New Mission; Apr. 15 at 6:30 pm at Berkeley Art Museum Pacific Film Archive.


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