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Like the luminous Chilean discovery from last year’s Berlin competition, Gloria, Argentinean director Celina Murga’s admittedly more downbeat The Third Side of the River is another penetrating Latin American character study distinguished by its emotional lucidity, its intimacy, and the profound psychological access it provides by the subtlest means. The slow-burn drama focuses on a 17-year-old boy – played with understated rawness and not a single false note by non-professional actor Alian Devetac – whose family has been relegated to second-tier status by an estranged father who bestows affection purely via transactional gestures. As absorbing as it is affecting, this is a small but beautifully observed film.
The name of executive producer Martin Scorsese as presenter certainly won’t hurt in terms of exposure on the specialized circuit. Murga met Scorsese through the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative, during which she was working on this script. On the surface, Murga’s rigorously unadorned ultrarealism couldn’t be further from Scorsese’s dynamic storytelling. But there are perhaps signs of his mentorship in the film’s insightful perspective on masculine attitudes and behavior, on the chain of bullying and on the entitled ways in which men claim ownership of people, expecting compliance, respect and gratitude in return.
The somewhat awkward title refers to the non-existent bank of land where Nicolas (Devetac) finds himself standing on unstable foundations. A smart kid who plans to become a doctor, he lives with his mother Nilda (Gaby Ferrero), sister Andrea (Irina Wetzel) and livewire kid brother Esteban (Tomas Omacini) in a modest house on what appears to be limited income.
Murga draws the close relationship among the siblings with tenderness and honesty. Likewise the protectiveness in the watchful, wounded gaze Nico keeps trained on his mother. While Nilda is clearly desperate to please the kids’ father Jorge (Daniel Veronese) when he drops by for sex, delivering cash and the occasional statement-making gift, his presence casts a hint of shadow over the children, suggesting he’s a borderline stranger.
What makes the drama so compelling is its restraint. Jorge is not a monster but simply an ordinary man incapable of considering other people’s emotional needs. This is especially hard on Nilda, who watches him return to his chosen second family after every visit. A respected doctor, Jorge treats staff, patients and family members with the same blunt directness, even when ostensibly showing a paternal interest in his offspring.
The director and co-writer Gabriel Medina inject similar nuance into Nico’s attitude toward Jorge. The boy isn’t festering with resentment or loud signifiers of his internal damage. He even intervenes at school when his young half-brother Lautaro (Dylan Agostini Vandenbosch) is bullied. However, Nico’s impatience with Lautaro’s reluctance to stand up for himself echoes Jorge’s macho behavioral expectations.
Seemingly skeptical about the potential of Lautaro to be the son he wants, Jorge invests more and more time in Nico. He sets him up in an internship at his medical lab and entrusts him to oversee the small cattle ranch he owns on the outskirts of town while he takes Lautaro and the boy’s mother on vacation. But the more time Nico spends with his father, the more his hatred of him floats to the surface.
Murga’s inspiration for the story was a news item about a 17-year-old boy who killed his estranged father, the man’s recognized spouse and their child. But rather than replicating those events with a full-scale spiral into tragedy, she goes for a quieter though no less devastating climax.
The director’s approach to her central character manages to be both elliptical and laser-like in its acuity, and some of the most seemingly casual observations are loaded with meaning. In one lovely moment, Nico lets himself into the home of Jorge’s other family – a far more upscale place than his, in a better part of town – and takes an illicit dip in their pool. At a karaoke bar, he halfheartedly joins Andrea onstage for a duet, barely participating at first and then rocking out with explosive bottled-up energy. Perhaps most wrenching is watching him waltz his sister around the dance floor at her 15th birthday party, while cinematographer Diego Poleri’s camera gracefully mirrors their moves.
No commentary is necessary to underline that the absence of either a girlfriend or a boyfriend in Nico and Andrea’s lives might have a lot to do with the primary model of a relationship to which they have been exposed.
While Veronese and Ferrero are both excellent in the principal adult roles, it’s Murga’s naturalistic handling of the young actors that makes the film such a moving experience, albeit in a minor key. The director’s skill working with kids has been apparent in her earlier work, notably A Week Alone, but the verite feel of scenes with Nico, Andrea and Esteban makes it hard to believe these three non-actors aren’t actual siblings with years of mutual affection and friction behind them. Devetac, in particular, is a real find, his extended silences conveying the introspectiveness and dangerous turbulence of a pressure-cooker teen.
Shot in Murga’s birthplace, a sleepy small town in the Entre Rios province, and unfolding with only source music and no score, this is a muted, contemplative film that nonetheless sustains considerable intensity.
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Competition)
Production companies: Tresmilmundos Cine, in association with Rommel Film, Waterland Film, ZDF
Cast: Alian Devetac, Daniel Veronese, Gaby Ferrero, Irina Wetzel, Tomas Omacini, Dylan Agostini Vandenbosch
Director: Celina Murga
Screenwriters: Celina Murga, Gabriel Medina
Producers: Juan Villegas, Celina Murga
Executive producer: Martin Scorsese
Director of photography: Diego Poleri
Production designer: Sebastian Roses
Costume designer: Paola Delgado
Editor: Eliane Katz
Sales: The Match Factory
No rating, 92 minutes
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