'The Rotten Link' ('El Eslabon Podrido'): Film Review

Courtesy of Valentín Javier Diment
Satisfying Argentinian Gothic.

Director Valentin Javier Diment's dark rural fairy tale has been picking up regular awards on the fantasy festival circuit.

As with fairy tales and slasher movies, the woods in Valentin Javier Diment's The Rotten Link are an unsettling place. Combining elements of both those genres into a memorably off-kilter tale about a misfit family in a misfit community, the director's follow-up to (and improvement on) his 2011 horror comedy, Memory of the Dead, also throws comedy, social critique, gore and family drama into the mix. On paper, it shouldn't work, but in practice it does, held together by Diment's distinctive and compelling rendering of a unique, strange world. The movie deserves to connect with festivals beyond the genre circuit where it has made its home.

It's testimony to the film's success that the viewer never asks how the bizarre setup has actually come about. Woodsman Raulo (Luis Ziembrowski), a benign, simple-minded, milk-drinking fellow who's altogether less heroic than his equivalent in Little Red Riding Hood, delivers lumber to the members of a woodland village that seems stuck in time. It lives according to its own laws, and its slavishness to base impulses makes it anything but idyllic — indeed, none of the inhabitants seems happy. Though ailing with dementia, Raulo's mother Ercilia (veteran actress Marilu Marini) is a tyrannical, bitter figure, a kind of deranged ugly stepsister; his sister Roberta (Paula Brasca) brings in the money by sleeping with the men of the town, a fact that doesn't unduly bother the local priest (played by director Diment).

But as Ercilia reminds her, there is a curse on Roberta: once she has slept with all the men in the town, she must die "because she'll no longer have any purpose." (This particular community remains unenlightened by feminism, along with most other 20th- or 21st-century notions.) And there are only two men left: neighbor Camilo (Luis Aranosky), desperately trying to fix things so he can sleep with Roberta, and of course Raulo.

Like the best fairy stories, this one is metaphorical, but doesn't get in your face about it. The dank atmospherics of the pueblo, beautifully rendered in often captivating images — and occasionally filled with golden-morning motes-in-the-air sunlight — are an extension of the moral unhealthiness that seems to have the place in its grip.

The orgasmic expression on Raulo's face as he pours water over his mother in the bathtub, and the way Roberta pleasures not only a man but his elderly mother, sitting next to him, are enough to suggest as much. This community is a disaster waiting to happen. The comedy is unsettling, transgressive, and the tension between the dark imaginations at work and the highly controlled script keeping them in check (until, it has to be said, the film's remarkably staged final ten minutes) pretty much defines the mood.

Performances are richly nuanced, particularly from Diment regular Ziembrowski in a role with very few spoken lines, and from Marini, who only gets the first half of the film to show her stuff, but does so particularly compellingly in a brief across-the-table face-off with Esther (Marta Haller), Camilo’s wife.

Indeed, one of the film's strengths is to explore the human richness of its central triangle of characters, who in lesser hands might simply have been grotesque stereotypes. One scene has the camera recording in real time -- and with a cinematic dexterity that's one of the film's hallmarks -- both an extremely traumatic event undergone by Roberta and her recovery from it. It's clear that Diment is interested in these suffering characters beyond simply as agents to propel his story.

Sound work is superb with regard to the noise of the forest, and likewise the simple accordion/guitar score, from the instruments of onscreen musicians. But there's too much of it in a film which can get the point of its scenes across quite well enough without the need for musical underscoring — particularly the use of plucked double bass strings at times of tension.

Special effects, mainly involving blood and body parts, are well-handled, suggesting that in the final analysis Diment may be more Dario Argento than Hans Christian Anderson. The title in Spanish is a pun on the translation of 'the missing link' that doesn't survive the change into English.

Production company: Peliculas V
Cast: Luis Ziembrowski, Marilu Marini, Paula Brasca, German de Silva, Susana Pampin, Marta Haller, Valentin Javier Diment, Luis Aranosky
Director: Valentin Javier Diment
Screenwriters: Javier Diment, Sebastian Cortes, Martin Blousson
Producer: Valentin Javier Diment
Executive Producers: Daniel Botti, Vanesa Pagani, Silvio Diment
Director of photography: Fernando Marticorena
Production designer: Sandra Iurcovich
Costume designer: Gabriela Gonzalez
Editor: Martín Blousson
Composer: Sebastian Diaz
Sales: Peliculas V

No rating, 74 minutes

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