Back To Stay: Film Review

A demanding but quietly rewarding tale of Argentine siblings' low-key domestic tribulations.

World premiering at Locarno, Argentine/Swiss writer-director Milagros Mumenthaler's film took the festival’s top prize, the Golden Leopard, as well as the international critics' award and Best Actress honors.

LOCARNO — The lives of three sisters in their crumbling Buenos Aires mansion are evoked with empathy in writer-director Milagros Mumenthaler'sslow-burning, squarely feminine-focused debut Back To Stay. World premiering in competition at Locarno, it took the festival’s top prize, the Golden Leopard, as well as the international critics' award and Best Actress (for María Canale). These accolades should kick off an extended run on the film-festival circuit, especially at events keen on uncovering fresh talent. But this Argentinian/Swiss co-production is ultimately a little too small-scale to stand much chance commercially outside Spanish-speaking territories.  Even there it's a strictly niche offering.

Born in Argentina, the 34-year-old Mumenthaler, who has two sisters of her own, moved to Switzerland as a baby, but returned to study cinema and then directed a small handful of well-received shorts. Her first feature evidently draws heavily on autobiographical details, and feels especially well-observed in the way it traces the tricky, volatile dynamic that often develops when sisters find themselves in close proximity for extended periods of time.

STORY: Locarno Film Festival: Argentina's 'Back to Stay' Takes the Top Prize

Mumenthaler is deliberately sparing with background information, but we glean that Marina (María Canale), Sofia (Martina Juncadella) and Violeta Tauss (Ailín Salas) have been raised by their grandmother following the death of their parents. When the grandmother also passes away (just before the start of the film), the trio must find new ways to get along without a controlling 'parental' figure. They reluctantly examine their lives and priorities, engage in (mainly) low-level bickering and, as the seasons pass outside, haltingly emerge from their cozy, inertia-bound semi-exile.

The girls have grown up among the dusty trappings of the past: The house is full of chintzy furniture and long-outmoded electrical appliances, including an amusingly retro-style bed complete with jolting vibrate option, but the time has clearly come to open doors and windows (hence the original Spanish-language title, Abrir puertas y ventanas).

Crucial to their 'coming-out' is handyman-neighbor Francisco (Julián Tello) who, after the sudden departure overseas of the restless Violeta — a pivotal event which occurs offscreen, but has a major impact on all that follows — edges towards a relationship with Marina, the oldest and most insecure of the sisters.

Keeping the emphasis firmly on character development and atmosphere, Mumenthaler , whose choice of subject matter and technique unavoidably recalls the early works of her acclaimed compatriot Lucrecia Martel (The Swamp, The Holy Girl), takes her own sweet time in the early and middle sections, exploring the house and its grounds with an anthropologist's keen fascination for the most humdrum of details. This approach risks, and sometimes crosses the line into self-indulgence and/or tedium. But audiences willing to be patient may find themselves becoming imperceptibly drawn into the Tauss girls' world.

Indeed, Back To Stay is a movie, which, though seemingly humdrum, does linger resonantly in the mind. Certain key scenes exert an entrancing spell, such as the one in which the sisters, slumped on a sofa, casually join together in singing along to the ethereal 1970s folk-song (sung by Bridget St. John) that provides the English-language title. Overall there's the tangible sense that these are real people, not just scriptwriting constructs as Mumenthaler elicits strong performances from her tight little ensemble.
Venue: Locarno Film Festival
Production companies: Alina Film, Ruda Cine (in co-production with Waterland Film and Radio Télévision Suisse)
Cast: María Canale, Martina Juncadella, Ailín Salas, Julián Tello
Director/screenwriter: Milagros Mumenthaler
Producers: Violeta Bava, David Epiney, Rosa Martínez Rivero, Eugenia Mumenthaler
Director of photography:  Martín Frias
Production designer: Sebastián Orgambide
Costume designer: Françoise Nicolet
Editor: Gion-Reto Killias
Sales: The Match Factory, Cologne
No rating, 100 minutes