‘He Hated Pigeons’: Outfest Review

Courtesy of Punk Films

A live, improvised score is a defining element of Ingrid Veninger’s feature, which follows a grieving young man’s road trip through his native Chile.

A handsomely lensed love letter to Chile, He Hated Pigeons is a simple story, and also something of a blank canvas, designed to accommodate the brushstrokes of musicians. Building her unusual project on notions of serendipity, risk and impermanence, Canadian filmmaker Ingrid Veninger has used social media to recruit local accompanists for each of the film’s stops on the fest circuit. The musical performances are improvised and unrecorded.

With scores running the gamut from minimalism to rock to singer-songwriter Jane Siberry, there’s no question that each screening is not only a unique aural experience, but a fresh reading on a drama that leaves crucial elements of its story open-ended. Veninger’s fifth feature follows a young Santiago man as he embarks on a spontaneous solo trip after the death of his boyfriend. Treating the themes of grief and longing with a gently earnest obviousness, the movie finds its emotional pulse — or not — in the contributions of musicians.

For its 25th festival screening, at Outfest in Los Angeles, 19-year-old Kayla Briët delivered a stirring mix of tribal themes, melodic delicacy and heartbeat percussion. By contrast, when viewed with the far less assertive score on the VOD version, improvised by Toronto musicians Justin Small and Ohad Benchetrit and recorded in one take, the narrative unfolds as a languid premise for a travelogue.

Lead actor Pedro Fontaine, a newcomer for whom Veninger wrote the film, brings a dreamy yearning to the role of Elias, first seen in the Atacama Desert in Chile’s north, the place where his boyfriend, Sebastien (Cristobal Tapia Montt), died a month earlier. Having borrowed his father’s big red truck without asking, he arrives in the pre-dawn darkness still in the suit he wore that day to his unspecified white-collar job — the job he told Sebastien he couldn’t quit. He’ll gradually replace those threads, in the process letting go of his city obligations, as he continues toward the country’s south, the place the free-spirited artist Sebastien spoke of with almost mystical reverence. In unconvincing bits of exposition-as-monologue, Elias addresses a photo of Sebastien that he’s propped on his dashboard.

More effectively, their time together is lightly sketched in with brief flashbacks that tell just enough. The book of drawings and collages that Sebastien left Elias lends additional facets to the love story, and it’s the source of the movie’s title. At the same time, that artist’s journal offers clues and raises questions about the ambiguous circumstances of Sebastien’s death. Veninger’s screenplay at first threatens to turn into one of those dramas that withholds the specifics of a tragic event as a tease to hook the viewer. But her chief concern, finally, is not how to contrive a plot engine but how to generate a mood.

In light of that, it’s unfortunate that she didn’t give Fontaine more to work against as a solitary traveler, even as Dylan Macleod’s elegant camerawork casts Chile’s stunning landscapes as an awakening force. With one exception, Elias’ encounters on the road are friendly and easy, however laced with his unspoken pain. In the hands of a more commercial-minded filmmaker, every exchange with a stranger would be tense, odd, unsettling or dangerous. And while it’s refreshing to see a road movie avoid such a button-pushing setup, and offer a vision of a world that’s mostly peaceful and kind, more friction would have lent texture and depth to this generic portrait of heartache.

Even so, Fontaine ably conveys the ways Elias is learning to let go while still holding in a great deal about his identity, a self-protective reflex within a conservative Catholic culture. Key among his road encounters is his time spent with a hitchhiking Canadian, well played by Veninger. When he tells her that Sebastien also was from Canada, it’s clear that this is the first time he’s spoken the phrase “my boyfriend” out loud, and the moment has a tender, restrained power.

It’s a hopeful instant of human connection in a drama whose nearly every turn can be interpreted as a step toward either downfall or liberation — depending, in part, on the musical palette of that evening’s score.

Production: Punk Films
Cast: Pedro Fontaine, Cristobal Tapia Montt, Ingrid Veninger, Vanessa Ramos, Leonardo Fini
Director-screenwriter-producer: Ingrid Veninger
Executive producers: Julia Grant, Don Carmody, Paul Gammal, Jamie Paul Rock
Director of photography: Dylan Macleod
Editor: Maureen Grant 
Composers: Justin Small, Ohad Benchetrit 

Not rated, 80 minutes

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