‘The Apprentice’ (‘El Aprendiz’): Film Review

The Apprentice - Still 2 - H 2016
Courtesy of DL Cine
A deeper-than-usual take on alienation.

Tomas De Leone’s debut about a lost soul in a small coastal town won Best Argentinian Film at the recent Mar del Plata festival.

The fragmentary and confused existence of a 20-something Argentinean in a small coastal town is the focus of Tomas De Leone’s The Apprentice. The film does nothing new, but what it does, it does well: Movies about guys struggling to find their place in the world are a dime a dozen, but De Leone wisely has grounded this lean, thoughtful and often claustrophobic piece in unspoken, real emotional truths, giving his first film an evocative richness that leaves it looking like anything but apprentice work.

Pablo (Nahuel Viale, best known for Juan Villegas and Alejandro Lingenti’s Idleness, and an old hand at playing disaffected youths) is an apprentice is several different areas. Firstly and most obviously, he’s learning how to be a chef and dreams of setting up his own restaurant. Not much time is devoted to this. Secondly, a crook as well as a cook, he’s an apprentice thief: Along with a trio of ne’er do wells consisting of the brutish, borderline psycho Parodi (Esteban Bigliardi, from Lisandro Alonso’s Jauja), baby-faced Mauro (Diego Vegezzi), and getaway driver Miguel (Federico Minervini), whose battered red jalopy almost reps a fifth member of the gang, he breaks into properties to steal disappointingly small amounts of cash. They all suspect that Parodi is pocketing more than his fair share, but fear of their domineering leader prevents them from protesting.

On the relationships side, Pablo is unable to get it going with Mercedes (Malena Sanchez, whose character pops up a little too unexpectedly and bows out again a little too soon). The reasons for Pablo’s emotional constipation lie on the family side of his life: His mother Mimi (Monica Lairana) is a pathetic alcoholic who Pablo regularly has to get out of scrapes. One scene, a disturbing mixture of the creepy and the tender, has him undressing Mimi in awkward real time. When his father Ernesto (German de Silva) calls, back in town after many years and telling Pablo to come and pick up the drunken Mimi, the scene is set for a father/son showdown from which Pablo emerges as the loser.

The action basically shuttles from inside Miguel’s red car, tense scenes that feature deceptively throwaway but authentic-sounding dialogue, out to the wider world, where things are equally tense for this poor young man. It all adds up to a complete picture of a life, though done in minimalist, understated brush strokes: The closest this defiantly downbeat piece comes to being flashy is in a couple of brief slow motion scenes that easily could have been cut — especially since one of them is that old standby, the slow-motion soul-cleansing shower scene.

The real strength of The Apprentice lies in the emotionally suggestive notion that Parodi, Miguel and Mauro are Pablo’s surrogate family. In one scene Mercedes, at the end of a nicely dreamy-but-grungy scene in which she plays a customer at the restaurant he one day hopes to own, asks Pablo why he hangs around Parodi, a figure who always seems to be on the verge of smashing his interlocutor in the face. The answer — which Pablo of course cannot verbalize — is that Parodi is his surrogate father.

Parodi dominates those around him, and Bigliardi, with his battering ram screen presence, sometimes threatens to overwhelm Viale’s more buttoned-down, compact, though equally intense performance. Indeed, if the film has a problem, it’s that Pablo is a frustratingly passive character until the very final scene, in which the film’s edgy second father/son showdown takes place; but that said, Viale is always able to make Pablo’s confusions interesting.

Other performances, in roles sometimes lacking nuance, are solid, especially in the case of the women, who have little screen time to make their impact but who nevertheless leave their mark. Eric Elizondo’s cinematography renders well that coastal small-town feel, as the beaten-up red car stutters down long, empty rural roads at night, on the way to a new date with disappointment for a character who's destined to remain an apprentice for the rest of his life.

Production companies: DL Cine, Cinemaven
Cast: Nahuel Viale, Esteban Bigliardi, Malena Sanchez, Monica Lairana, German De Silva
Director: Tomas De Leone
Screenwriters: Tomas De Leone, Jordan Orlando
Producers: Tomas De Leone, Maia Menta, Tom Davia
Director of photography: Eric Elizondo
Production designer: Diana Orduna
Editor: Iair Michel Attas
Composers: Ignacio Suarez Rubio, Nicolas Reffray
Sales: DL Cine

No rating, 76 minutes