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A Nobel Prize-winning Argentinean author who’s based in Barcelona goes back to his village of birth for the first time in 40 years in The Distinguished Citizen (El ciudadano ilustre), the latest directorial effort from Mariano Cohn and Gaston Duprat. He’s there to receive a medal and the distinction of the title, given to him by the proud mayor of the backwater town of Salas, some six hours from Buenos Aires — or longer, if the rickety car that’s picked you up from the airport breaks down in the middle of nowhere.
A light dramatic comedy about art, fame and small-town jealousy, the film benefits from a laughs-filled screenplay by Duprat’s brother, architect, museum director and screenwriter Andres Duprat, and also from the appropriately weary star power of lead actor Oscar Martinez (the father in both Paulina and the Wild Tales segment The Proposal).
That said, The Distinguished Citizen, which was shot digitally, looks cheap and has no real cinematic qualities, which, taken together with the fact it is pleasant but doesn’t dig all that deep, makes its appearance in the Venice competition this year a bit of a surprise.
The opening sees revered Argentinean author Daniel Mantovani (Martinez), around 60, accept the Nobel Prize for Literature in Stockholm (in reality, no writer from Argentina has ever won the award, something especially the fans of Jorge Luis Borges find hard to swallow). His acceptance speech is an unexpected, sharp and sometimes hilarious rebuke that mocks the prize and the royalty and other dignitaries present. The fact the writer now has to live with the idea that he’s become part of the establishment and someone whose work everyone can agree on, signals, for him, the end of his career. “This canonization is fatal,” he says.
The main action is set five years later, when the wealthy writer, after declining the most prestigious invitations from around the world, decides to say “yes” to an invitation from the mayor of Salas, the town where he grew up. Mantovani is not only its most famous son but the remote place has also served as the inspiration for all of Daniel’s novels, though for decades he’s been living comfortably in Europe.
The trip there is filled with lightly comedic situations that are all properly set up for maximum payoff value. Audiences will know Daniel wants to travel incognito to Argentina, for example, so as soon as boards the plane, of course, the captain announces over the PA system they have a Nobel winner on board. There’s also a funny interlude after the car that’s picked him up from Buenos Aires airport breaks down and, on Daniel’s suggestion, they use pages from one of his books to make a fire (neither will it be the last time those pages come in handy).
Divided into five chapters, the film follows Mantovani from his comfortable and modern Barcelona villa to the hotel room booked for him in Salas — “it looks like it’s from a Romanian movie,” he complains to his assistant on the phone — and the full program of lectures, meetings and various other cultural activities that the proud mayor (Manuel Vicente) has organized. The famous writer also encounters his childhood sweetheart, Irene (Andrea Frigerio), and his burly old buddy, Antonio (Dady Brieva), who turns out to have married her.
Most of what transpires is the typical stuff of comedies and because the situations are set up properly, the actors deliver everything with a straight face and editor Jeronimo Carranza knows how to cut to maximize a punchline, the movie works, at least on the surface. But the directors’ investigation into an artist’s complex relationship with his own work and his roots, on the one hand, and a community’s reactions to someone who became celebrated for airing the town’s dirty laundry in lightly fictionalized form (and that from the comfort of his European home), on the other, never digs particularly deep. After launching a promising opening salvo with that speech about how artists who are widely celebrated are practically dead, the film takes a bemused look at one man’s small-time and small-town mishaps, petty rivalries and expected jealousies but never really gets into either the lead’s or the townfolks‘ head.
Rather oddly, Cohn and Duprat, who did double duty as directors and cinematographers, also don’t really do much in terms of the visuals to suggest what makes Salas so special or so dull. Though production designer Maria Eugenia Sueiro’s worn-out sets suggest something about the economic state of the town, the framing and mise-en-scene are completely uninspired. A visual signature or style could have made Salas much more of a character than it is now and the final result looks more like a run-of-the-mill TV project than something that should be seen on the big screen.
In the end, viewers are likely to be entertained. But is it great art? The Distinguished Citizen is more like the TV equivalent of a funny airport novel.
Production companies: Arco Libre, Television Abierta, Magma Cine, A Contracorriente Films, Aleph Media
Cast: Oscar Martinez, Dady Brieva, Andrea Frigerio, Nora Navas, Manuel Vicente, Belen Chavanne, Gustavo Garzon, Julian Larquier, Emma Rivera
Directors: Mariano Cohn, Gaston Duprat
Screenplay: Andres Duprat
Executive producers: Victoria Aizenstat, Manuel Monzon, Fernando Riera, Eduardo Escudero
Directors of photography: Mariano Cohn, Gaston Duprat
Production designer: Maria Eugenia Sueiro
Costume designer: Laura Donari
Editor: Jeronimo Carranza
Music: Toni M. Mir
No rating, 118 minutes
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