'Raul': Tirana Review
Chilean director Matias Venables’ first feature examines a middle-aged barber’s existential troubles as he confronts changes in his 30-year routine.
A study of a taciturn barber contending with his mid-life crisis, Chilean director Matias Venables’ debut feature thrives on a spruced up visual style and delicate performances — especially a nuanced turn from the leading actor Oscar Hernandez — but flounders with its unfortunately fluffy narrative. The intensity of Raul’s controlled deadpan first half dissipates as Venables struggles to propel his story to another level. Indeed, Venables hits many a cul-de-sac as the titular character's ineffective means of alleviating his troubles lead him into dead ends galore.
Making its initial bow at Locarno’s Carte Blanche section in 2013 as a work in progress, this finished version of the film — which clocks in at just 73 minutes — still looks like an incomplete affair. Still, Raul could serve as the promising Venables’ calling card for the future, with the film having won a few prizes in smaller festivals in South America and now having received its proper European premiere at the Tirana International Film Festival.
Over a black screen, Raul begins with a man singing a marching song of sorts. The voice belongs to an old, retired marine (Alejandro Sieveking) boasting of his past glories while having his hair cut. He’s just the first of the numerous self-indulgent chatterboxes Raul (Hernandez) is forced to tolerate as he silently and sternly trims and shaves while customers impose their skewered world views on him. Contributing to the cacophony is Carmen (Paula Zuniga), a hairdresser who shares the work and the spoils at Raul’s barbershop. Her attention to Raul, laced with obvious affection, only adds to the man’s angst.
It is indeed one of Carmen’s well-intended gestures that jolts Raul out of joint, as she insists in marking the 30th anniversary of his shop. Raul’s veneer cracks, as he inches awkwardly toward breaking out of his solitude and connecting with the world – in this case, a bar and a park in another block, where he meets lost souls who are more mentally disheveled than he is. And just as he attempts to discover humanity, the inhuman economic forces of gentrification strike back, as Raul contends with the option of selling his shop to property developers for a fortune.
It’s easy to feel as exasperated as Raul as he struggles to derail his customers from their navel-gazing, monotonous monologue. But despite all the Kaurismaki-esque fatalist humor, human goodness eventually, and unsurprisingly, triumphs. While the feel-good factor certainly makes Raul accessible, this inevitable drive toward closure leaves many of the movie's connections dangling; tangents fall flat and fail to generate sufficient dramatic substance.
Venue: Tirana International Film Festival
Production companies: Bisagra Cine with Escuela de Cine de Chile
Cast: Oscar Hernandez, Paula Zuniga, Alejandro Sieveking, Teresa Munchmeyer
Director: Matias Venables
Producers: Valentina Barros, Antonio Ballestrazi, Matias Venables
Screenwriter: Matias Venables
Director of photography: Nico Martinez Bergen
Production designer: Oriana Curiante
Editor: Matias Venables
Music: Cristobal Rivera
International Sales: The Open Reel
No rating; 73 minutes