Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Sat Jun 17, 2017 5:53 pm 
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DOLORES FONZI IN PAULINA

Maddening protagonist bent on martyrdom

Paulina is titled La patota ("The Gang") in Spanish, the title of the 1960 classic by Daniel Tinayre and Mirtha Legrand of which it's a remake. It's frequent Pablo Trapero cowriter and fellow Argentinian Santiago Mitre's sophomore effort, following his 2011 The Student (NYFF 2011). People (not without reason) thought The Student too dry. I made allowances, because I liked its wealth of specific detail about political organizing - despite its not telling much about the actual content of the politics involved. There's something dry about this movie too - quite infuriatingly so. But if it's stylistically ordinary, its enigmatic protagonist and her peculiar behavior may have the value of stimulating debate, for those who don't just dismiss the movie as unbelievable and maddening.

There's something lacking here too, as in The Student, arguably bigger than political ideology. If it weren't lacking, though, Paulina, which is dominated from first to last by the very watchable but mysterious Dolores Fonzi in the title role, might seem mere melodrama. The central event is Paulina's rape by a seedy gang of youths up north where Argentina meets Paraguay and Brazil, where she goes to teach the needy, abandoning a promising academic and legal career. The surprise is that she finds out the identity of the rapist, and yet refuses to finger him, or his sidekicks, who happen to be her students in an idealistic politics class. This confounds her father, Fernando (Oscar Martínez, of Wild Tales), her longtime boyfriend Alberto (Esteban Lamothe, the lead of The Student), and her new best girlfriend Laura (Laura López Moyano).

The thing that's lacking is motivation for Paulina, who refuses to behave in the conventional or the logical way and take action against an act of criminal violence committed on her. One can't help thinking of Verhoeven's provocative Elle (NYFF 2016), in which Isabelle Huppert also gets to ignore a rape, but in a more dashing kind of female empowerment. Elle is provocative too, but in a more fun way. Huppert's character is a perverse cynic. Clearly Paulina is a woman who is choosing to carry her idealism several shades too far.

We really know where things are gong from the opening sequence in which Paulina and Fernando argue about her new decision to drop her PhD and go north for the uncertain teaching gig. Her father is a judge, and naturally isn't pleased, believing with her advantages she could accomplish much more in the big city. Her stony refusal to reconsider what seems a choice of vague martyrdom is a clear hint of things to come. The northern location is near where she grew up, but it's now ravaged by destructive forestry and dominated by a lumber company. And she is going to teach up there in an idealistic program in politics for whom? Semi-literate dropouts? It's never clear how the school was formed, what the students are doing in it, or how Paulina has prepared for it. Clearly she starts out with no clue about how to teach disadvantaged and unmotivated youths, who need direction and discipline. To her first class she explains since this is a "democracy" - news to them apparently - everything belongs to them, including the decision whether to attend the class or not. Most of the students take the hint and immediately walk out.

Paulina needs moral support and bonds with fellow teacher Laura, and on one of the first evenings they get drunk on wine out at Laura's place. Laura lends her motorcycle to Paulina to ride home. The chronology and sequence becomes irregular from here on; it jumps back to the hangdog oldest member of the little gang, Ciro (Cristian Salguero), who works at the lumber mill. Evidently he has recently been rejected by a would-be girlfriend, and Paulina stands in for her. As the flashbacks are shuffled and multiplied, there are scenes of Paulina being raped, from afar and close up, and the aftermath. As she is questioned by medical examiners, rape counselors and members of the police, some events emerge. But this is no Rashomon. Ciro and the younger gang members remain blanks. So does Paulina, who decides after a sojourn with her outspoken aunt to go right back to the class, which has the bad boys in it.

Though much of the action focuses on Paulina, the POV switches for a while to her father, who gets the gang rounded up, "very quietly" he says, though their brutal treatment includes the use of ferocious dogs. There's one secretive boy who sneaks in and out of class and draws animals. But this sly hint is a red herring, because there is no story of the secret life of the have-nots. All attention is on Paulina's perversity in deciding to keep the baby after she learns she's pregnant, even though she admits to Fernando that if it were Alberto's, her boyfriend's, child she'd have an abortion. When a lineup of the gang of five is presented to Paulina, she says it's not them - though we know very well she knows it is. At this point, Laura can't offer her friendship any longer. And we are sorely tempted to conclude Fernando was right all along, and that he is right to weep bitterly for his daughter, because she is beyond hope. Finally she is brought before the police and put under oath. Will she finally tell the truth? We'll never know, because the movie ends there. But what we do know is that Paulina's faithfulness to her convictions, whatever exactly they are, and whether they are right or not, is stubborn and brave.

Paulina//La patota. 103 mins., debuted at Cannes 2015 in Critic's Week, when it won the Grand Prix Nespresso and also the FIPRESCI Prize (parallel sections). Over 15 other festivals including Locarno, Vancouver, London, Chicago, Miami and Amsterdam, with numerous other awards and nominations. US theatrical release by Cinema Slate begins 23 June 2017 (NYC, Spectacle Theater, 124 S 3rd St., Brooklyn), national expansion to follow.

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©Chris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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