Celluloid Dreams/Bambu and Archipel 35

PALM SPRINGS -- Screenwriter-director Veronica Chen and cinematographer Sabine Lancelin achieve a bracingly visceral cinematic language in "Agua," the stripped-down tale of two swimmers at different points in their careers. With spare use of dialogue, Chen's second feature (after 2001's "Smokers Only") homes in on matters of identity, purpose and will with striking originality. Her approach will be too oblique for some, but those ready to go with "Agua's" flow will find an affecting drama. The Argentine-French co-production recently received the Special Jury Prize in the Palm Springs International Film Festival's New Voices/New Visions competition.

A decade after he was disgraced in a doping scandal, champion swimmer Goyo (Rafael Ferro), a tense, self-contained man in his 30s, returns to the Argentine city of Santa Fe to redeem his good name in the Open Waters Marathon, a daunting river challenge. He becomes a coach to up-and-comer Chino (Nicolas Mateo), a more measured, less instinctual athlete who sees competitive swimming as a ticket out of poverty for himself and his pregnant girlfriend, Luisa (Jimena Anganuzzi). The ambivalence of the young couple's relationship contrasts with Goyo's failed attempts to reconcile with his ex-wife, Maria (Gloria Carra), and the daughter who doesn't know he exists. Goyo is so cut off, he all but ignores the gentle but obvious advances of Ana (Leonora Balcarce), his daughter's swimming teacher; when they do get together, he's not capable of real contact. But with startling selflessness Goyo does ultimately break through his protective carapace.

The script by Chen and Pablo Lago offers no easy resolution to the existential dilemmas it presents. In what could have been banal symbolism, water becomes a character in its own right, life-giving and destructive. Sensuous photography underscores the precision, propulsion, suspension and grace of the swimmer's body, with essential contributions from editors Jacopo Quadri and Cesar D'Angiolillo. The effective, understated performances are in service to this very physical storytelling. Besides its compelling emotional twist, the climactic river sequence is as stunning as the scenes of a windswept desert landscape that open the film.