‘Aire libre’: Toronto Review

Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival
Despite its title, as a viewing experience "Aire libre" is just too claustrophobic

A study of a bourgeois marriage in slow decline

This married couple of Aire libre thought they had it all, but now they've found they still want more. A forensically-observed and played family drama about emotional dissatisfaction, Anahi Berneri’s follow-up to 2010's similarly-focused It’s Your Fault unspools at unnecessarily glacial place, while its detached treatment of its well-to-do protagonists is unlikely to inspire much sympathy for their woes. But it’s sharp, bitter little observations on contempo relationships will resonate among the arthouse viewers at whom it’s aimed.

Civil engineer Manuel (Leonardo Sbaraglia) and architect Lucia (Celese Cid) are building their dream house, but right from the word go they’re arguing about the details. Basically they never get out of bickering mode: they don’t have sex, and watching Lucia reject Manuel nocturnal advances with the question ‘why do you get angry?’ is toe-curlingly painful in the style of intimate documentary. There’s a chemistry between the actors which means the lack of chemistry between the characters comes over loud and clear.

Their seven year-old son Santi (Maximiliano Silva) is caught in the verbal crossfire, and though as good middle-class parents Manuel and Lucia are careful to conceal their emotions when he’s around, it’s pretty clear that he’s happiest when with his grandparents, at whose houses the couple is living while the new house in under construction. Away from the relationship, Manuel is working out a settlement for a worker who fell from scaffolding, showing a care and affection for the wife of the injured worker which he can’t muster at home. Lucia hangs out with her musician brother and flirts with a friend of his.

Whether with friends or alone, Manuel and Lucia take every opportunity to deliver bitchy little verbal blows at one another. What’s behind them is never discussed, but the title suggests that both feel suffocated, that the open air of their lives referred to in the title has been extracted, vacuum-like, by their relationship. At a certain point, inevitably, the emotional tension becomes horribly, painfully physical. But mysteriously to many viewers, Manuel and Lucia hang in there.

This points up a credibility flaw in the script of Aire libre: that the couple may have had good times, but the viewer never gets to sense them. There’s no hint of why Manuel and Lucia ever got together in the first place -- or indeed of why they’re not simply going their own separate ways now, which wouldn’t be hard for either. It’s not as though they’re having much fun hating one another. The script’s intense focus on the here and now means that such issues aren’t addressed: its title apart, this is a hermetic little piece that rarely reaches out.

During those moments at which Berneri is thinking in cinematic rather than emotional terms, things can be very powerful, as when a music in a nightclub where Lucia’s having fun plays through into a scene with Manuel riding on his bike with a blonde woman. They're in separate worlds, and those few moments say more about their relationship than many of the over-extended scenes in a film whose sense of stasis too often merges with the experience of the viewer’s.

Production company: Rizoma
Cast: Leonardo Sbaraglia, Celeste Cid, Maximiliano Silva
Director: Anahi Berneri
Screenwriters: Berneri, Javier Van De Couter
Producers: Natacha Cervi, Hernan Musaluppi
Co-producers: Juan Pablo Galli, Juan Vera, Alejandro Cacetta, Mariana Secco
Director of photography: Hugo Colace
Production designer: Pablo Maestre
Costume designer: Roberta Pesci
Editor: Eliane D. Katz
Composer: Nahuel Berneri, Sebastian Bianchini
Sales: Media Luna New Films
Rating: 14A
102 minutes