'The Summit' ('La cordillera'): Film Review | Cannes 2017

Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
A difficult ascent.

Christian Slater co-stars in this third film from Argentinian director Santiago Mitre, whose 'Paulina' won the Cannes Critics' Week in 2015.

For its French release, the Argentine film The Summit (La Cordillera) goes by the alternative Spanish-language title, El presidente — which might seem apropos given the fact that it's a portrait of a fictional Argentinean president of the people or everyman president who has to deal with a corruption scandal involving his daughter while defending his country’s interests at the titular international pow-wow. But releasing a film about the personal and political struggles of a nation’s president in the Trump and post-Brexit era is a risky gamble because politics are currently in a state of constant upheaval and rapid change. This makes a film like The Summit, which takes place just before fake news, alternative facts and the rise of the post-truth right became a reality, suddenly feel like yesterday’s news, too recent to be a period piece yet too old to accurately capture the zeitgeist.

Writer-director Santiago Mitre continues to demonstrate a keen interest in politics, after his impressive first feature, The Student, about student elections in Buenos Aires, and Cannes Critics’ Week winner Paulina, about the political awakening of a woman in the countryside. But the unfortunate timing isn’t the only issue with the film, which was conceived on a much larger scale than its predecessors, but which never manages to articulate a more nuanced idea than the fact that politicians are people, too.

The Summit has an impressive cast with some of the Hispanosphere’s biggest names, including Argentina’s Ricardo Darin (The Secret in Their Eyes, Wild Tales) in the lead; Paulina Garcia (Little Men, Gloria) as the president of Chile, who hosts the titular event and Spain’s Elena Anaya (The Skin I Live In, The Memory of Water) as a deep-digging journalist. But even with these names and a plump cameo appearance by Christian Slater as an envoy from the U.S. State Department trying to influence the goings-on behind the scenes, this disappointing effort could struggle to reach the same amount of international visibility as Mitre’s previous outings.

Argentina’s Hernan Blanco (Darin) isn’t a very experienced president; the audience gets to know him as he’s being briefed on his way to Chile, where a summit is being held to form a (fictional) Latin American version of the international oil association, OPEC. Blanco, a former mayor of a town on the pampas, has run on a platform of being a man of the people, with Mitre filling in the audience via a radio program about the president that the man in question and his entourage listen to on their flight to Chile. As Blanco, surrounded by aides and bodyguards, sits in his plush private plane — filmed on Argentina’s actual equivalent of Air Force One — it seems obvious that the position of president is by definition something that’s as far removed from the lives of ordinary people as possible. However, and like much of the material’s socio-political subtext, this interesting paradox isn’t really explored further.

Mitre, who co-wrote the screenplay with Paulina co-scribe Mariano Llinas, brings together all the leaders of Latin America in a fancy resort somewhere high up in the Chilean Andes, where the air is thin and the high, and snow-peaked mountains are themselves summits too. The presidents of Brazil (Leonardo Franco) and Mexico (Daniel Gimenez Cacho, Bad Education) are especially quick out of the gate, either in the official meetings and/or in terms of what can be achieved through backroom dealing. This sheds some light on the political process at an international summit but nothing that Mitre and Llinas illustrate here is new or particularly insightful, while the characters remain archetypes more than fully rounded human beings.

Unlike his previous two films, which were very loosely captured and intentionally somewhat messy, just like real life and real-life politics, the filmmaker opts for a more stately approach, which at first seems understandable, seeing the high-level politicking portrayed here. But the classically composed shots, certainly majestic but also somewhat stiff, finally work against the messiness that emerges at the heart of the narrative, as Blanco has to deal not only with the high-stakes poker game that involves Argentina’s national and continental interests, but also with his unstable adult daughter, Marina (Dolores Fonzi, the lead from Paulina), whose ex-husband seems to want to reveal some fishy financial deals from over a decade ago, thus threatening Blanco’s personal and professional life, as well as that of the nation.

This set up seems straightforward enough, with personal, national and international stakes all clashing in an isolated, pressure-cooker environment. But the film then takes an unexpected — and, frankly, unwelcome — left turn. Though the stage seemed set for a thriller-like study on how the political and the personal can never be fully disentangled, The Summit instead starts to explore hypnosis, phantom memories and the theoretical existence of good and evil. All these new developments are tied to Marina, a supporting character, and their impact on the lead, her father, isn’t all that easy to grasp, with Darin exuding a politician’s charisma but also their poker face, even in private moments. What to make, for example, of the fact that he leaves his ailing daughter to travel to Santiago and have a secret meeting with Slater’s cocky wheeler-dealer character to see what the U.S. might possibly offer both Blanco and/or Argentina?

The hard-to-read third act thus never feels connected to what has come before, with underdeveloped characters being pushed into what feel like opaque situations or narrative dead ends, while the feature’s formal rigidity leaves the proceedings feel even more cold and uninvolving. The score from frequent Almodovar collaborator Alberto Iglesias at least expertly plays up the iciness and the unease.

Production companies: Maneki Films, K&S Films, La Union de los Rios, Mod Producciones, Arte France Cinema, Memento Films Production, Telefe
Cast: Ricardo Darin, Dolores Fonzi, Elena Anaya, Erica Rivas, Alfredo Castro, Paulina Garcia, Leonardo Franco, Daniel Gimenez Cacho, Gerardo Romano, Christian Slater
Director: Santiago Mitre
Screenplay: Santiago Mitre, Mariano Llinas
Producers: Didar Domehri, Matias Mosteirin, Agustina Llambi Campbell, Fernando Brom, Simon de Santiago
Director of photography: Javier Julia
Production designer: Sebastian Orgambide
Costume designer: Sonia Grande
Editor: Nicolas Goldbart
Music: Alberto Iglesias
Casting: Javier Braier, Mariana Mitre
Sales: Film Factory

In Spanish, English, Portuguese
No rating, 114 minutes

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