'A Family Submerged' ('Familia sumergida'): Film Review | San Sebastian 2018

Courtesy of San Sebastian International Film Festival
Esteban Bigliardi and Mercedes Moran in 'A Family Submerged.'
Dreamy directorial debut foregrounds acting and cinematography.

Mercedes Moran stars in actress-turned-director Maria Alche's feature debut, winner of the Horizontes Latinos section at the prestigious Spanish festival.

Opacity and ambiguity tantalizingly interweave in A Family Submerged (Familia sumergida), a quietly ambitious first feature from by Argentinian actress Maria Alche. Exploring the traumatic impact of a woman's sudden death on her bereaved middle-aged sister, this co-production with Brazil, Germany and Norway is in some ways a standard issue example of current slow-paced Latin American art-cinema, dealing with familiar situations, settings and characters — albeit in more enigmatic, dream-like fashion than usual.

The jurors of the Horizontes Latinos section at San Sebastian were sufficiently impressed, however, to award the Locarno-premiered film their top prize, and further high-profile festival bookings are guaranteed. Strong connections with Argentina's reigning auteur Lucrecia Martel (Zama) certainly won't do A Family Submerged any harm in terms of international exposure.

Fourteen years ago — whose short Noelia (2012) won Best Short at Buenos Aires' BAFICI — Alche took the title role in Martel's sophomore feature The Holy Girl, and Martel is credited as "creative consultant" here. Mercedes Moran, who played Alche's mother in that film and also featured prominently in the ensemble cast of Martel's debut The Swamp, is now front-and-center throughout as the outwardly calm but inwardly distressed Marcela.

As the film begins, she is still stunned by the unexpected passing of her sister Rina. When her easy-going husband (Marcello Subiotto) departs on a business trip, the mother-of-three increasingly retreats into her imagination, envisaging conversations with deceased relatives. Real-world distraction is provided by the Nacho (Esteban Bigliardi), a friend of her daughter, who is himself in a kind of limbo after the abrupt cancellation of a long-planned relocation to Puerto Rico. Inch by inch the pair drift together into an affair, but this potentially melodramatic development is handled with casual, offhand calm by writer-director Alche. 

She is instead primarily concerned with navigating through Marcela's inner life, exploring the longings and dissatisfactions of a woman shocked into reappraising her circumstances. As is nearly always the case when performers step behind the camera, A Family Submerged is very much an actors' affair — somewhat in the manner of Isabelle Huppert, Moran commands our attention and sympathy without ever overtly asking for it. She's expressive but guarded, awakening long-dormant layers of her sensuality as her relationship with Nacho transitions from casual acquaintance to friendship to something deeper and more serious.

But A Family Submerged isn't only a showcase for Moran; indeed, the biggest impact is arguably made by a woman who never appears in the picture, cinematographer Helene Louvart. A veteran with more than three decades' experience — during which time she has worked with Claire Denis (Towards Mathilde), Wim Wenders (Pina), Agnes Varda (The Beaches of Agnes) and many others — Louvart is in the midst of a golden spell. Last year she gave a touch of magic to Eliza Hittman's Beach Rats, and more recently has been responsible for Alice Rohrwacher's Cannes-prized Happy As Lazzaro, Mia Hansen-Love's Maya and Jaime Rosales' Petra

Here she works wonders with refracted and curtain-filtered light, turning the interiors of Buenos Aires apartments and houses into hazily oneiric spaces and phantom zones which can feel alternately claustrophobic or cozy in their cocoon-like confines. Another seasoned pro, Livia Serpa, edits the film into impressionistic, episodic fragments that convey a smudgy, rough-edged feel. "How's everything?" someone asks at a late stage. "Volatile and mysterious," comes the reply. The dialogue in Alche's script, perhaps losing some nuance in translation to English subtitles, often veers into the pseudo-poetic, in tandem with the self-conscious theatricalism ("I eat the light and die!") that distinguishes several of Marcela's ghostly encounters.

It's tempting to label all of this a delicate, empathetic evocation of femininity, especially given the distaff dominance behind the camera: in addition to Alche, Louvart and Serpa, the production design, costumes, casting and sound are all handled by women, and a woman is the main producer. Their male colleagues include Luciano Azzigotti, whose subtle score fades in after the halfway mark and is sparingly deployed, and foley artist Francisco Rizzi. The latter is presumably responsible for the sizzling sounds that accompany the lighting of cigarettes, surely one of the weirdest and most distracting of current cinematic conventions.

Production companies: Pasto Cine, Bubbles Project, Pandora Film Produktion, 4 1/2
Cast: Mercedes Moran, Esteban Bigliardi, Marcelo Subiotto, Ia Arteta, Laila Maltz, Federico Sack
Director / Screenwriter: Maria Alche
Producer: Barbara Francisco
Co-producers: Tatiana Leite, Christoph Friedel, Turid Oversveen
Cinematographer: Helene Louvart
Production designer: Mariela Ripodas
Costume designer: Mercedes Arturo
Editor: Livia Serpa
Composer: Luciano Azzigotti
Casting directors: Violeta Uman, Katja Szchejtman
Venue: San Sebastian International Film Festival (Horizontes Latinos)
Sales: Visit Films, Brooklyn
In Spanish
No Rating, 85 minutes