Less Modern Times: Film Review

Effortlessly charming debut from Argentinian director Simón Franco could be a breakthrough with the right distributor.

Simón Franco's feature debut is dry instead of antic, but it could win hearts in an arthouse run with a little luck and a distributor who cares.

MONTREAL — A Gods Must Be Crazy for Latin America, Simón Franco's Less Modern Times is dry instead of antic but just as winning in its depiction of commercialized technology intruding on centuries-old folk lifestyles. Unshowy but completely satisfying, this feature debut could win hearts in an arthouse run with a little luck and a distributor who cares.

Set in Argentina's mountainous Patagonia region, the film stars a gaucho, Payaguala, who continues to enjoy his simple pleasures even as mining company geologists crowd his ranch and a nearby American tour operator tries to pimp him out as cheap local color. In what appears to be his debut, middle-aged actor Oscar Payaguala is charismatic in the role while seeming not to try: portly and goateed, with stringy black hair held under a beret, he carves whistles for fun in the evening and is happy with sheep as companions when his city-dwelling pal Felipe (Nicolás Saavedra) isn't paying a visit.

One day a mysterious crate is dropped on Paya's doorstep. Opening it only at Felipe's urging, he finds a TV, phone, and satellite dish—gifts from a program spreading the gift of free telecommunications throughout rural Argentina.

With no built-up defenses against the onslaught of commercial culture, our hero is soon puzzling over reality shows, keeping up with news from foreign lands, and—with disturbing regularity—tuning in to the soap-opera adventures of a young woman whose love for her boss must never be acknowledged.

We can predict the side effects of this new diversion: Paya quickly replaces his afternoon mate tea with soda, and frequently finds himself swaddled before the tube when chores need to be done. Most poignantly, he finds his instinctive reluctance to sell his talents diminished, and winds up taking cash from the gringo to sing songs for white folks who wouldn't know a mountain ballad from a San Telmo tango.

The story's political allegory is clear without needing to be underlined, and Franco lets it unfold while keeping his focus on the specifics -- following Paya's metamorphosis with a dry comic pace, unhurried but never boring, that suggests a less oddball Aki Kaurismäki. Like Gods, Less Modern Times finds a way to let tradition survive the modern world's invasion -- even if Paya, back in equilibrium, finds that his solo-guitar repertoire now includes a certain telenovela's sappy theme song.


Bottom Line: Effortlessly charming debut from Argentinian director Simón Franco could be a breakthrough with the right distributor
Venue: Montreal World Film Festival, First Films World Competition
Production Company: Lagarto Cine, Ceneca Producciones
Cast: Oscar Payaguala, Nicolás Saavedra, Ricardo Fernandez
Director: Simón Franco
Screenwriter: Simón Franco, Laura Avila
Producers: Carolina Alvarez, Hugo Castro Fau
Director of photography: Mauricio Riccio
Editor: Cristina Carrasco, Simón Franco
No rating, 95 minutes 

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