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The complex professional relationship and years-long friendship of a cranky painter and a crafty gallery owner in Buenos Aires are the subject of the prickly comedy My Masterpiece (Mi obra maestra). This is the latest work from Argentinean filmmaker Gaston Duprat (The Distinguished Citizen), who again works from a screenplay written by his brother, Andres, while Duprat’s regular co-director, Mariano Cohn, here only has a producer credit. Though the foibles-filled script is always diverting, the way in which it withholds certain information from the audience until the big twist can be revealed feels like a bit of a cheat as the narrative mechanics momentarily upstage the otherwise glorious characterizations of ace veteran actors Guillermo Francella and Luis Brandoni. That said, this always-entertaining co-production between Argentina and Spain should do solid business in the Hispanosphere, with further festival play a given after its out-of-competition bow in Venice.
Renzo Nervi (Brandoni) is a reclusive, choleric and self-obsessed painter who really has just one interest: to paint. Early on, after his gallerist, Arturo Silva (Francella), has complained he never does any PR for his shows and he’s become an “artist of the last century” whose works are becoming very hard to sell, the painter shows up at the gallery, demonstratively shoots a couple of holes in one of his recent works with a revolver in front of a potential buyer and then leaves again. Played completely straight, the scene is darkly comic while remaining firmly rooted in a sense of reality that’s only very slightly heightened. (It says a lot about today’s art world that the act of shooting one’s own work could also be considered a performance piece instead of an act of spiteful auto-vandalism.)
As viewers will discover over the course of the film, Renzo and Arturo have known and worked with each other for years, from Renzo’s glory days in the 1980s to the present, where he’s months behind on the rent of his dilapidated Buenos Aires home, filled with bric-a-brac, pets and the large, colorful canvases he keeps producing. Laura (Maria Soldi) is supposedly a student of his but acts more like a disposable girlfriend, though she’s not necessarily always willing to have sex with him after he’s swallowed another one of his blue pills.
Things start to go out of whack when Alex (Raul Arevalo, from Marshland), a very determined, morally upright and improbably dreadlocked Spanish hipster, shows up on Nervi’s doorstep and announces he wants to become a “disciple” of Renzo’s, no matter what. “All artists are ambitious and selfish,” the master tells him after he’s had Alex move all of his belongings out of one room and then back in there again as nothing more than a memory exercise. Meanwhile, a large commercial commission for an Argentinean captain of industry (Julio Marticorena) that Arturo secured for the completely bankrupt Renzo will turn out to be a huge fiasco, though here, as well in a scene that finds Nervi underneath Laura’s bed in her student dorm, both the dramatic payoff and the comical punchlines are too predictable to offer any element of surprise.
Screenwriter Andres Duprat clearly knows the art world, as he’s also the director of the MNBA, Argentina’s National Museum of Fine Arts. Some of the film’s observations about the complicated relationship between artists and art dealers, as well as how monetary value of works are calculated and can fluctuate, benefit from his insider understanding without the film itself becoming too inside. And Duprat isn’t afraid to show the uglier side of the art business. Indeed, besides the always scheming Arturo, one of Andres’ most priceless creations is a haughty art-world maven that looks like she just walked out of either real life or Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals and she’s played to perfection by Andrea Frigerio in one of the standout supporting roles.
But in terms of the overall narrative structure, Duprat tries to do too much. The character of Alex often feels more like a two-dimensional plot element that can be maneuvered left and right rather than a believable human creation. And the film’s entire early going is problematic. My Masterpiece actually kicks off with a prologue during which an (unseen) museum audience is asked, in a voiceover one supposes is from a museum guide, to contemplate a Nervi painting and how “art can create its own reality,” and “there’s nothing to understand” and it’s important to just spend time with the work. These words are clearly directly addressed to the viewer of the film as well, but they sound overly serious and even somewhat pretentious. In short, they set the wrong tone for the darkly funny, often light-on-its-feet dramatic comedy that follows.
It also makes the early going feel disproportionally disembodied, as the prologue segues to the introduction of Arturo, who also has a thing or two to explain in yet another voiceover. To complicate things even further, the gallerist’s off-screen monologue already clearly states one of the major crimes that will be committed in act three, which is odd because the narrative later twists itself into impossible hairpins to avoid giving away as much as possible for as long as possible. However, the very heavy foreshadowing deflates much of the dramatic tension that the third act would need to justify keeping a lot of information initially hidden from the audience yet not from the protagonists.
That said, the actors are clearly having a ball. Perhaps somewhat ironically, Francella is well known internationally for his roles in serious works such as The Clan and the Oscar-winning The Secret in Their Eyes, though local audiences know him as the Al Bundy-equivalent in the local remake of Married… With Children. Here, the serious and more comical parts of his career come together in a spot-on turn as an oily gallery owner who seems more interested in making money than in supporting great artists, though he will do that, too, if that is what it takes. Opposite him, Brandoni, who has experience in the theater and in film as well as in politics, is a perfect choice for the unlikeable rascal that is Nervi, who is not only an anti-establishment artist but someone who literally isn’t interested in doing much else besides creating his own art. (The paintings used throughout are actually by the late Carlos Gorriarena.) The chemistry between the two men is completely believable, with their long-term relationship often complicated by matters of art and commerce.
The film’s production design, courtesy of Cristina Nigro, is the standout technical contribution, always filling the screen with things that help suggest something about the characters that live or work there, from Nervi’s creative mess of a home to the considered emptiness of Arturo’s gallery and workspace.
Production companies: Arco Libre, Television Abierta, Mediapro
Cast: Guillermo Francella, Luis Brandoni, Raul Arevalo, Andrea Frigerio, Maria Soldi, Alejandro Paker, Pablo Ribba, Roberto Peloni, Mucio Manchini, Julio Marticorena, Santiago Korovsky
Director: Gaston Duprat
Screenplay: Andres Duprat
Producers: Fernando Sokolowicz, Jaume Roures, Mariano Cohn
Executive producers: Victoria Aizenstat, Javier Mendez Zori
Director of photography: Rodrigo Pulpeiro
Production designer: Cristina Nigro
Costume designers: Manuela Marti, Luciana Marti
Editor: Anabela Lattanzio
Music: Emilio Kauderer, Alejandro Kauderer
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Out of Competition)
In Spanish, Arabic
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