‘Balloons’ (‘Los Globos’): Film Review
Mariano Gonzalez’s gritty single-father drama picked up the International Critics’ Award at Argentina’s Mar del Plata fest.
The shadow of the early Dardenne brothers' work floats over Mariano Gonzalez’s tough, lean debut Balloons, which fuses a matter-of-fact documentary style with emotional punch in telling the story of a man forced to face up to fatherhood. Entirely eschewing sentimentality and featuring a central character who in his inarticulateness is easier to sympathize with than to like, this is one of those pent-up films where the protagonist cries only once, but when it comes, it's massive, and cathartic for character and audience alike. Both subject matter and treatment are challenging, but Gonzalez’s attentiveness to the truthfulness of the film’s emotional undertow make him a director and performer to watch. Festival sidebars with an eye for new Latino talents could well invite Balloons to their party.
Cesar (Gonzalez, a theater director making his film debut here) has been in rehab for two years and is now working in a run-down balloon factory: Much time is devoted to the fascinating business of how these objects, perhaps too obviously symbolic, are made. (Rarely in cinema can party balloons have been employed in such a downbeat way; one early scene has Cesar’s assistant checking them as he tonelessly repeats “punctured … punctured …” as though it were a comment on the characters’ lives.)
Taciturn and rough-hewn both physically and emotionally, wearing an unexplained scar on his left cheekbone like a war wound, post-rehab Cesar keeps himself furiously busy for fear of thinking too much. When not making balloons, he’s angrily exorcizing multiple demons by doing crossfit to the sound of thrash metal or hanging out and joylessly sleeping with barwoman Laura (Jimena Anganuzzi), who seems only slightly less numb than he is.
One of the things that Cesar doesn’t want to contemplate is that he has a 4-year-old boy, Alfonso (Alfonso Gonzalez Lesca, the director’s real-life son), whose mother died in a car crash and who’s now being taken care of by her parents, one of them being The Blonde Guy (Roberto Jose Gonzalez, Gonzalez’s real-life father, who sadly died shortly after filming). Cesar is told that, because the aging couple can no longer raise Alfonso, he’ll have to take him back. Cesar makes a pathetic attempt to persuade Laura that he might help him out but is rejected with a simple “No,” and decides to hand Alfonso to a wealthy couple for adoption.
When his father-in-law hears about this, he walks up to Cesar and wordlessly punches him in the jaw, breaking it: This is the film’s pivotal scene. It is a comment on Cesar as a father and, knowing he's in no psychological or social state to raise a child, he'll spend the rest of the film torn about how to handle it.
Hand-held camera from Argentine maestro Fernando Lockett is in-your-face, and indeed in the characters’ faces as well, anxious as it is to register every flicker on the features of the terminally impassive Cesar so as to supply some kind of guide to what this privately very scared man is actually thinking. Like everyone else in the movie, Cesar is unable to articulate what is happening to him, and it falls to the viewer to reflect on the major issues of fatherhood and responsibility that the film raises. A traditional unreconstructed male, Cesar had presumably been expecting his wife to raise Alfonso, and is quite unprepared for any other outcome. The film's big "if" is whether he'll finally be able to take this unwanted test of his ability as a man and as a father.
Gonzalez does fine work in rising to the self-imposed challenge of slowly unveiling what is happening behind his character’s stony facade as he struggles to make sense of it all. It’s a controlled and nervy performance of great intensity, offering few crumbs to the viewer in the way of easy identification. The film is indeed little more than a somewhat painful character study, and some scenes -— particularly those in semi-darkness -— do drag on for too long as Cesar puffs interminably away on one of the cigarettes he always seems to be smoking. Also on the downside, a little too much effort is required to make sense of the multiple plot ellipses, suggesting that despite its occasional longueurs, Balloons could have been blown up a little bigger without exploding.
Production companies: La Cueva del Chanco, Los Salvajes
Cast: Mariano Gonzalez, Alfonso Gonzalez Lesca, Juan Martin Viale, Jimena Anganuzzi
Director-screenwriter: Mariano Gonzalez
Producers: Mariano Gonzalez, Paolo Donizetti, Juan Schnitman
Executive producer: Ivan Granovsky
Director of photography: Fernando Lockett
Production designer: Julieta Dolinsky
Costume designer: Paola Delgado
Editors: Santiago Esteves, Delfina Castagnino, Mariano Gonzalez
Sales: Kino Bureau