Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Camino Royale

The Argentine filmmaker Carlos Sorín has made a name for himself internationally in the past few years with a number of charming and funny road movies set in the Argentine provinces. Historias Minimas, the tale of a philandering travelling salesman and an elderly man who wanders off in search of his missing dog was a beguiling cross between Mike Leigh and Aki Käurismäki, while the follow-up Bombón: El Perro which featured an unemployed provincial who enters a mastiff he inherits from a passerby in a dog show, was a lovely tale of self-fulfillment which, like many of Sorín's films used non-professional actors.

Sorín's latest, El Camino de San Diego is the tale of an illiterate Guáraní Indian from Northern Argentina who is determined to deliver a tree root that he is convinced bears the likeness of his idol Diego Maradona to the man himself who has been moved into intensive care in 2004. The peasant Táti, who is played by a real-life lumberjack Ignacio Benitez (in fact, his entire family star in the film as themselves), is such a dim yet likeable fellow willing to plunge his already heavily-indebted family into financial trouble merely for a whim, that the first half an hour is almost excruciating to watch as one hopes that he will be ultimately be dissuaded from a mad project that will only end in heartbreaking humiliation. Yet Táti goes ahead with his pilgrimage, with money that his long-suffering wife has borrowed, and sets off on a long journey that brings him in contact with seasonal labourers, prostitutes, a larger-than-life Brazilian trucker who compares Maradona unfavourably with Pelé, and finally a blind man selling lottery tickets. Each episode is masterfully rendered, especially Táti's efforts to find a film for a superannuated camera, and though it is a bit surprising that there are so few people willing to exploit such an innocent abroad, this may be Sorín's point: that the parlous situation of Maradona's health engendered an unusual sense of kindness and solidarity in ordinary Argentinians, who had long suffered under military dictatorship, neo-liberal politics and then the economic collapse of December 2000. The most remarkable thing is that, the closer he gets to Buenos Aires, the kinder strangers are to Táti.

But El Camino, no matter how movingly uplifting it is, is no sentimental feelgood film. If anything it is hard as nails underneath the cheery exterior. The prostitute befriended by Táti and the trucker and who decides to move to the capital on a whim as ill-advised as Táti's, exits the film abruptly close to the end when she finds out that her friend she expected to live with has moved home without leaving a follow-on address. Her life is going to be undoubtedly worse and Táti, despite fulfilling his dream of getting close to his hero, has a future beyond the film that is uncertain in itself, given an extra frisson by the faux-documentary interviews with his fellow villagers talking about him in the past tense. The Benitez family, happily, did well out of the film, finishing the construction of their modest home with their salaries, but Sorín's stunning achievement is to transcend the cheering thrust of the narrative (while also sidestepping the argument of how mass culture unduly engages the masses) and embed it with a cautionary undercurrent. If not a feelgood film, it is certainly a feelbetter one, and one that is likely to be among the best this year.