Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Oct 20, 2014 2:46 pm 
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A tale of intimate strangers and a hidden dream

Daniel Berman's latest film is partly an amusing (if not laugh-out-loud funny) twist on romantic comedy, and partly a philosophical fable about relationships. Unfortunately it takes refuge in a predictable finale and makes a few false steps along the way, but Berman, one of Argentina's important directors, entertains with an original voice. Now having made nine features, he tends to focus on intimate family relationships, as declared in titles like Family Law, Empty Nest, and Brother and Sister. With The Secret of Happiness he adds an Argentinian version of bromance to his repertoire, then quietly stabs it in the back. His starting point is the symbiotic partnership of Santiago (Guillermo Francella, who had a major secondary role in The Secret in Their Eyes) and Eugenio (Fabián Arenillas). Best friends since high school, they're longtime business associates who together run a successful appliance store. (They've just been made a very generous offer by two younger men who want to buy it, but since it's their happiness, their dream, they don't want to sell; or at least Santiago doesn't.) Berman choreographs this male union of partners, companions, and best mates visually in an opening sequence that has almost the comical rhythm of a film by Jacques Tati ("Mes deux oncles," perhaps). They move in unison, eating breakfast, driving to work, sitting in adjoining offices, all side by side, going to the races for recreation together and getting massaged by lovely ladies also, side by side. They live lives of perfect and safe Latin male bonding.

But this union is a facade, and behind it is the barrier of a huge mystery. Proving this, one day Eugenio disappears. While bachelor Santiago is puzzled and bereft, Eugenio's wife Laura ('90's Argentine TV star Inés Estévez) appears at the store to take over her husband's reins in the business -- and sell it. Together they begin to visit Oudukian (Alejandro Awada), a prescient, if semi-retired detective who resides at a posh Middle Eastern restaurant, doling out wise pronouncements merely for the price of an expensive meal. Santiago and Laura begin spending more time with each other. Their explorations take them to a spa and to a dance club. You may be guessing what will happen, but we will not tell you what has become of Eugenio, or reveal the story that gives away fifteen minutes early where he has gone.

The way things play out is obvious, but it is still told in wordless final tableaux that are beautifully filmed. Estévez's performance may be more solid than Francella's, as some critics have thought; but the growing uncertainty of Francella's beautific smile is something to contemplate. As seems to be usual for Berman, the film is both accessible and oddball. His screenplay is most of all intriguing in the way he explores (as he has before) the contradictory nature of seemingly intimate relationships, unpacking the blank spaces under both Laura's and Santiago's knowledge of Eurenio, and thereby debunking the notion, if one exists, that we ever know everything about anybody. At the back of it all is a dream that Santiago didn't know about, or more correctly had forgotten. Santiago, a simpler, sweeter soul, was happy with routine. But a familiar estrangement had led Laura to begin popping pills. With Santiago, though they may squabble, she stops taking the pills.

Berman depicted a cozier, richer world in Family Law with its Argentinian Jewish-Catholic family, and some think the director is not the same without his frequent earlier protagonist, Daniel Hendler, but still The Mystery of Happiness has moments of oddball charm and may retain qualities that could only be called Argentinian. And in Argentina it was a big box office hit in the first half of 2014.

The Mystery of Happiness/Il mistero de la felicidad, 92 mins., opened in theaters in Argentina 16 January 2014, showing also in Chile, and some festivals, and with limited release in Spain in August. Strand is releasing it for DVD sale in the US from 28 October.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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