‘Clever’: Busan Review
Men, muscles, machismo and motor cars, seen through a lens oddly.
As you might expect from a film about an unfulfilled romance between a martial arts teacher and a bodybuilder set in a surreally-drawn hick town, a first viewing of Clever slightly rearranges the senses. Adjectives like 'quirky' and 'offbeat' are easy to apply, but the true value of this affectionate satirical comedy about Latin American machismo lies in its ability to build its wacky world from the universal emotion of frustrated love: sure its quirky and offbeat, but it's also controlled, and very much about something.
In its gentle comedy, Clever is a worthy addition to a Uruguayan mini-tradition of gentle, skewed comedies such as Whisky and Kaplan. Success on the festival circuit is guaranteed, but further exposure would be merited for this small-scale but beautifully-executed fable.
Cleverly, the title flashes up in chrome, as though we’re about to watch Death Race 2000. Early scenes minimalistically portray the end of the marriage of Jacqueline (Soledad Frugone) and bald, bemuscled non-hero Clever (Hugo Piccinini, no explanation of the character’s name is forthcoming) an emotional subliterate who believes that adding a paint job and a spoiler to his old Chevette will win Jacqueline back. Essentially, Clever communicates through his car. But what redeems this potentially laughable idiot as a character is that his love for Jacqueline is real and painful.
His 10 year-old son Bruce (Santiago Aguero), named after Bruce Lee) and hence a slightly tubby disappointment to his father, spots a car beautifully painted with a flame design: Clever wants one. He heads for the no-horse town of Las Palmas to find the painter, where he encounters the requisite gallery of grotesques, and gets involved in some cool cowboy parody scenarios: but the trail will eventually lead him to flame-painting muscleman Sebastian (Antonio Osta, best-known for being bodybuilding champ) and, more disturbingly for Clever, to Sebastian’s sexually frustrated mother (Marta Grane).
Despite his physical bulk, Sebastian is a lonely, wannabe artist, and it’s this struggle between inner sensitivity and physical brutishness that the film is really about -- in other words, men. In a film full of lovely moments, there are two which stand out, each elegantly condensing the film’s ideas. One is the first view of the remarkably-designed gym which Sebastian owns, almost worthy of Dali; the other is of Sebastian playing a piano piece, his vast arms surreally capable of great delicacy: the piece was apparently written by Ostahimself.
Las Palmas is a tough guy’s kind of town, where tough guy silences and hard boiled dialogue are the norm. But curiously, instead of smoking cheroots, the men perennially suck on red wine lollipops. (Horancio Camandulle, credited as ‘corpulent man in bar’, also has one of the weirdest haircuts seen on screen since Javier Bardem’s in No Country for Old Men: once seen, not easily forgotten.) Only Sebastian really talks, and quickly a tough guy friendship becomes something more: the sighing, woozy atmosphere between the two protagonists when Clever’s newly-painted wheels emerge into the sunlight is positively post-coital.
Piccinini himself has distinctive physical features which are initially arresting, but quickly forgotten when the actor kicks into a nicely-judged performance as a desperate man desperately trying not to look desperate: he and Sebastian are a memorable double act. Visually, the film is all about the details, with the sordid gym where Clever teaches and Sebastian’s mother’s living room both coming across as disturbing places to be.
As often happens with projects which create and explore bizarre worlds to their limit, the windup stages are the weakest, with Borgiaand Madeiro excessively reliant on not one, but two, slow-motion song sequences. Both are evocative but overdone.
Production company: MontelonaCine
Cast: Hugo Piccinini, Antonio Osta, Marta Grane, Horacio Camandulle, Nestor Guzzini, Soledad Frugone, Santiago Aguero, Ignacio Mendy
Directors, screenwriters: Federico Borgia, Guillermo Madeiro
Executive producer: Pancho Magnou
Director of photography: Ramiro Gonzalez Pampillon
Production designer: Gonzalo Delgado Galiana
Costume designer: Dominique Souberbielle
Editor: Juan Ignacio Fernandez Hoppe
Composer: Ismael Varela
Sales: Habanero Film Sales
No rating, 83 minutes