‘Alanis’: Film Review | San Sebastian 2017

Courtesy of Varsovia Films
Memorably tough and tender.

Anahi Berneri’s study of a Buenos Aires sex worker earned best director and actress honors at San Sebastian.

Having spent three films studying middle-class frustrations, hypocrisies and sufferings, Anahi Berneri brings it back down to the streets with Alanis, a punchy and entirely unsentimental study of a few days in the life of a young Buenos Aires sex worker that’s as defiantly non-miserabilist as its heroine. Driven by a cracklingly energetic, committed performance by Sofia Gala Castiglione (more commonly known in Argentina as Sofia Gala) as a character whom we very quickly start to care about, events come at the viewer entirely through the heroine’s dislocating perspective, making the film a viewing experience of great immediacy, one with the rare capacity to dislodge prejudice. Perhaps incredibly, Berneri’s deserved San Sebastian award is only the second time the festival has given its best director honor to a woman.

We first encounter Alanis (Gala Castiglione) perched atop a grimy toilet, and indeed grime is the backdrop to much of her life — though very little of the nastiness seems to have impregnated her soul. A street worker, Alanis (real name Maria, she's named after the singer, confusingly but amusingly called "Morrissey" in the subtitles) lives with her older friend/colleague Gisela (Dana Basso). Her life is summed up by the time she spends with a cellphone in one hand and her 18-month-old toddler Dante (Dante Della Paolera) in the other.

Alanis is deceived by the police into thinking that they are clients, and in an early, shockingly direct and physical scene their apartment is raided: The cops remove her money and her phone, and thus her livelihood. To make matters worse, later that afternoon her landlord fixes things so that she and Dante are left outside, keyless and uselessly battering on the door. (This scene features the first of a couple of briefly distracting continuity errors.)

Alanis heads to the clothes shop of her kindly friend Andrea (Silvina Sabater), where she meets Andrea's equally kindly immigrant partner Ramon (Carlos Vuletich). Andrea finds her a job as a cleaner, but Alanis isn’t clear that cleaning toilets is any better than turning tricks and soon, to Andrea’s annoyance, she’s back on the streets again. The thing is — perhaps unlike Andrea, unlike the solidly middle-class aud members who showed up to watch Alanis at its San Sebastian screenings and perhaps unlike the art house viewers who will pick it up later — Alanis doesn’t actually believe there’s anything wrong with being a sex worker. It’s just how things are for a girl from the provinces, and we reach the end of her film to realize that at no point has Alanis complained about anything to anyone. 

Alanis’ is a tough life, but at least it has an anchor in Dante, who, crucially to the film, is Gala Castiglione’s real-life son. There are scenes from Alanis which in later life mother and son will be able to look back on with authentic fondness. Their relationship is given the freshness and intimacy of a family album, and her joy in him as he smiles up at her in one exquisitely captured moment justifies Alanis’ existence to herself. Motherhood is seen here as the life-giving principle which pulls Alanis through, and her fulfillment in this regard is contrasted with the childless Andrea’s bitterness.

The script devotes two extended scenes to Alanis at work. The first takes place in a car, after Alanis, her phone gone and needing a locksmith to open her door, has called a client. It’s wonderfully nuanced and tender, as Alanis gently tries to coax the aging man along, and she ends up getting the money without delivering the service, suggesting a human side to the work. But the second scene is grim, the camera trained relentlessly on Alanis’ passive face for a full three minutes as a client struggles to achieve orgasm with an Alanis who suddenly, if it’s possible, now looks even more vulnerable than she did before. (The negotiated price is around $20.) The two scenes encompass the script’s clear-sighted, unmoralizing view of Alanis’ life: a life which, although apparently that of a victim, is underpinned by the redemptive power of love.

Visually, Alanis switches between docu-style hand-held (sometimes bringing us into oppressive close-up, as though Berneri is determined to rub our shiny bourgeois noses in the film’s sometimes tangible filth) and altogether more stylized, quasi-painterly sequences where the chaos briefly subsides. One such instance is a wonderful, spontaneous scene shot through a shop window as Alanis and Dante play together on a showroom bed. Such moments show that Alanis, more than being the social crit/victimhood movie that its subject matter might lead you to expect, is also something more: It’s actually a film about a loving, struggling mother who just happens to turn tricks for a living.

Production companies: Varsovia Films, Laura Cine, Rosaura Films
Cast: Sofia Gala Castiglione, Dante Della Paolera, Dana Basso, Silvina Sabater, Carlos Vuletich
Director: Anahi Berneri
Screenwriters: Anahí Berneri, Javier van de Couter
Producers: Diego Dubcovsky, Laura Huberman, Anahi Berneri
Director of photography: Luis Sens
Editors: Delfina Castagnino, Andres Pepe Estrada
Composer: Nahuel Berneri
Venue: San Sebastian International Film Festival (Competition)
Sales: Fandango

83 minutes

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