An Argentine star actress reaches her own personal age of anxiety in the drama The Queen of Fear (La reina del miedo), written by and starring actual Argentine star actress Valeria Bertuccelli, who also co-directed the film with experienced assistant director Fabiana Tiscornia. This Sundance World Dramatic Competition entry takes the idea of stage fright and extrapolates it as the pic explores the crippling “life fright” of a famous actress in early middle age while she’s preparing for a one-woman theater show that remains frustratingly vague in its outline and contents — even for the actress herself.
This is clearly a personal project for Bertuccelli, who was involved in all aspects of the film, from its conception to its execution, and she has created a very meaty role for herself her that duly showcases her performance prowess. As a director and storyteller, however, she is on less steady ground, though her tour-de-force turn should nonetheless help get this unusual character study noticed on the festival circuit.
The dark-haired and mercurial Robertina (Bertuccelli) is clearly a very famous actress, as she’s managed to persuade investors to gamble on a well-publicized theater run of a one-woman show without any indication of what’s actually in it besides Robertina. She’s also very well-off, living in a spacious home surrounded by a large, walled-off garden in Buenos Aires with a live-in maid (Sary Lopez), an army of gardeners at her disposal and access to a private security company she can call should she feel unsafe. This is exactly what happens in the film’s opening, when there’s a sudden blackout and Robertina fears a thief or a ghost might have entered her home under the cover of darkness.
This literally dark early episode is clearly a metaphor, as Robertina turns out to be a woman who’s very much in the dark herself about where her life is and where it should go. It emerges that she recently got married, but her husband is nowhere to be seen and there are no children, either, lending a sense that perhaps Robertina, more than anything, is married to her status and her job. Even so, she keeps putting off proper rehearsals for the theater show she is preparing and wasting time on outlandish ideas, like getting a cherry tree moved from her home’s garden to the theater or being hoisted skywards in a security harness onstage for no apparent reason.
When Robertina hears that Lisandro (Diego Velazquez), a friend who now lives in Denmark, is suffering from cancer, she is presented the perfect excuse to leave Buenos Aires altogether to go and see him, much to the chagrin of her backers. But the actress slowly starts to see that she maybe hasn’t been such a good friend after all when she discovers that her friend speaks sign language. This comes as a surprise to Lisandro because he invited Robertina to his sign-language classes at least three times but she always said she didn’t have the time to come (it’s never quite explained how someone who presumably speaks Argentine Sign Language could teach in Denmark, where they use Danish Sign Language).
But as a screenwriter, Bertuccelli, who wrote the film solo, paints herself into a corner here. Robertina is aimless and stranded in life and to a great extent, the film takes on the characteristics of its protagonist. This is not necessarily a bad thing, and there certainly haven’t been enough films about childless women of Robertina’s age who have to face their own fears. But the film’s screenplay combines a handful of obvious metaphors with countless quotidian details that finally don’t offer enough material to turn it into a psychologically perceptive character study.
As an actress, Bertuccelli is magnetic, but she’s stuck in a pic that doesn’t really allow the audience to get to know Robertina in a more intimate way beyond what is suggested by the major outlines of her situation. If she’s the queen of fear, as the title suggests, how does she battle that fear, what are its possible origins and consequences and — most crucially — how does she think she might overcome that fear? There is (spoiler alert!) a rousing finale of sorts, but there is zero sense of how she managed to pull it off (though there is a delicious final sting in the tale that feels very true to life).
Argentine cinematographer Matias Mesa, a Steadicam operator on U.S. indie films such as Last Days and Babel, often follows the lead actress from behind in long Steadicam shots that visually suggest not only Robertina’s restless wanderings but also how she always seems to behind on herself, trying to catch up. The pic also plays with light and darkness to suggest something about the inner state of turmoil in Robertina, though these visual tricks ultimately can’t make up for the film’s lack of more specific insights into the lead character.
For all the misgivings one might have about the way the character is written, there’s no denying that Bertuccelli gives an arresting, duly frazzled performance. It’s hard to look away from the woman, even if one is unsure what she’s really thinking or doing. Audiences in Argentina will of course have the added meta layer of seeing a famous actress play a famous actress, but even for those who aren’t familiar with Bertuccelli’s work — other festival titles include XXY, Mientras tanto and Lluvia — it’s clear this is a woman with major star power. She is ably supported by an avuncular turn from Velazquez and cameos from local name actor Dario Grandinetti (Hable con ella, Wild Tales) and Gabriel Goity, Bertuccelli’s co-star in one of her biggest local hits, A Boyfriend for My Wife.
Keeping things in the family — and incidentally proving she’s not like the character she plays — the music in The Queen of Fear was written by Vicentico, aka Gabriel Julio Fernandez Capello, Bertuccelli’s husband.
Production companies: Rei Cine, Patagonik, Snowglobe
Cast: Valeria Bertuccelli, Diego Velazquez, Gabriel Goity, Dario Grandinetti, Sary Lopez
Directors: Valeria Bertuccelli, Fabiana Tiscornia
Screenwriter: Valeria Bertuccelli
Producers: Santiago Gallelli, Benjamin Domenech, Matias Roveda, Juan Vera, Juan Pablo Galli, Christian Faillace
Executive producer: Juan Manuel Lovece
Director of photography: Matias Mesa
Production designer: Mariela Ripodas
Costume designer: Andrea Mattio
Editor: Rosario Suarez
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (World Dramatic Competition)
Sales: Visit Films
In Spanish, English