A King for Patagonia (Un rey para la Patagonia): Film Review

Uncategorizable Argentinean doc pairs a 1970s artist with a failed 19th-century attempt to colonize one of South America's wildest territories

Lucas N. Turturro’s Argentinian "documentary" is this year's "Exit Through the Gift Shop," a film without a niche or much precedent, but well worth a look.

MONTREAL — A stylish and seductive quasi-doc obsessed with half-achieved schemes and self-aggrandizing eccentrics, Lucas N. Turturro’sA King for Patagoniakeeps viewers guessing but treats them like collaborators instead of rubes. The nicheless Argentinean import may be a daunting sell for distributors, but a bold company marketing it like this year's Exit Through the Gift Shop(albeit one with subtitles and a much more obscure subject) should be rewarded with good reviews and word-of-mouth.

Like Exit, the movie courts doubts about the stories it tells. It's "a symbiosis," the narration declares, adding (as if to excuse the ambiguity) "you have no idea what it's like to make a movie with a dead person."

That job is made tougher by the idiosyncrasy of the dead man in question: Juan Fresán, a graphic artist who treated his career like an all-access pass to the avant-garde. In between crafting liberty-taking designs for books by Borges and Cortázar, Fresán fixated on a tale he'd heard about Patagonia: In 1860, a Frenchman named Orélie Antoine de Tounenshad come to this territory between Argentina and Chile, befriended some indigenous tribes and declared the land "New France" and himself its king.

With no money and a non-actor as his lead, Fresán set out to make a film -- a "historical underdeveloped superproduction," that is -- of the King's failed reign. Decades after production sputtered (at one point, Fresán had to convince an orphanage to feed his crew), Turturro was given access to the surviving footage, which he incorporates into this larger account of the project.

Recalling the 70s-underground vibe of an Alejandro Jodorowskyfilm, Fresán's nutty scenes suggest a Dadaist take on history already shrouded in legend. Accordingly, Turturro takes liberties with his own subject, blurring the lines between historical and contemporary footage while alternating with present-day interviews featuring Fresán's surviving collaborators.

Those new Q&As are shot on a white soundstage in a crisp, hip style offsetting the shagginess of Fresán's material, thus providing relief from the movie's off-kilter tone while fleshing out its portrait of the artist. By the end, Turturro has convinced us not only that his two main subjects really existed, but has introduced us to another oddball -- this one claiming to be the King's rightful heir -- whose brazenness practically demands a sequel.

Venue: Montreal World Film Festival, Documentaries of the World
Production Company: Geometras del Señor Sur
Director: Lucas N. Turturro
Screenwriter: Christian Ferrer
Producer: Andrea Bruno
Director of photography: Clara Bianchi
Production designer: Valeria Martinez
Music: Mariano Godoy
Editor: Sebastian Mega Diaz
No rating, 82 minutes