‘The Black Frost’ (‘La Helada Negra'): Berlin Review

Black Frost Still - H 2016
Courtesy of Still Moving
Memorably shot, ponderously told.

A saintly visitor shakes up life in the village in Maximiliano Schonfeld’s follow-up to 'Germania.'

Four years after his vaunted festival debut Germania, Maximiliano Schonfeld returns with The Black Frost, effectively a variation on a theme of the earlier film featuring the same village location, some of the same (non-professional) actors and the same notion of a threatened, isolated (and strangely womanless) community. The big difference comes in the form of Ailin Salas as a mysterious visitor thought to have magical powers. Elliptically told, precisely directed and elegantly shot, Frost is chilly, enigmatic fare and often glacially paced, more interesting at the level of its ideas than its drama, which is largely hidden beneath the surface of its strangely passive characters.

Frost was shot in the same area of Argentina as Germania, in a part of Entre Rios province populated by descendants of Germans who settled there: rarely do Argentinian films feature so much blondeness. You can read as much or as little as you wish into the opening images of fractal shapes, which may or may not be magnified frost, and the same is pretty much true of The Black Frost as a whole, a film that remains frozen at the level of an idea and that never quite becomes a story.

The Lell brothers’ lifestyle is under threat: their crops have been attacked and killed by a dry freeze, the black frost of the title. Their nephew, Lucas (Lucas Schell, who also featured in Germania) finds Alejandra (Brazilian-born Ailin Salas) sleeping in a field, and carries her home: Soon she is offering to cook food, is wearing the clothes of widow Heriberto’s (Dario Wendler) wife, and helping out with the farming tasks. Why Alejandra would choose to do any of this is a mystery, but even more enigmatic is why her presence seems to inspire a series of little miracles — for example the return of living fish return to a dead tank, the improved performance at a riverside race of Benigno’s greyhound on her advice and later the recovery of the crops.

As Lucas’ wonder at (and desire for) Alejandra intensifies, word spreads about her powers to a neighboring farm, this time run exclusively by women, where the cows are sick. And soon, to all intents and purposes, Alejandra has become a remote, sexy saint, surreally sitting in a throne of hay to receive her acolytes. Is she the reward for the family’s goodness? Would things have come right anyway? Schonfeld’s script isn’t telling.

It's the kind of dramatic setup onto which no end of metaphorical meanings can be grafted, particularly since the silences allow them to proliferate so easily. Like Germania, Frost teems with high-level themes — among them nature, goodness, the power of belief and the need for religion — but is dramatically sluggish, with the slow pacing sometimes overstraining for significance. This is the kind of film that prefers its silences to conversation: When, for example, Alejandra informs Heriberto that she’s a widow, there is no follow-up comment or conversation, as though such day to day issues are beneath the film’s lofty concerns.

Such silences may indeed be because the men are emotional pre-literates, or because they prefer not to shatter Alejandra’s fragile spell, but there comes a point at which the lack of clear communication starts to grate — particularly with regard to its central character, who though as the film’s focal point is suitably spiritual-seeming and charismatic, remains terminally out of reach. We do learn a little more about Alejandra’s motivations later on, but not much. She’s a blank page, aloof and enigmatic throughout, and the viewers, who don’t need her as much as the villagers do, grow weary of her. The script has at least made an attempt to individualize its strangely innocent, unworldly male characters, who veer worryingly close to being simply vehicles for the film’s ideas.

As a documentary portrait of the farming life and its hardships of this particular group of descendants of immigrants — a way of life that may be passing — the film has its melancholy interest. Soledad Rodriguez’s photography, often evocative and sometimes stunning, makes the most of the wide landscapes, overarching skies and clear natural light, suggestive of new hope for a threatened community in its carefully calculated framing. Nahuel Palenque’s soundwork also makes a significant contribution to the slightly foreboding mood of the whole, and communicates something of the dangerous vulnerability of Alejandra’s situation: The score essentially consists of the noises of farm animals.

Production company: Pasto
Cast: Ailin Salas, Lucas Schell,
Director, screenwriter: Maximiliano Schonfeld
Producers: Barbara Francisco, Delfina Monteccia, Maximiliano Schonfeld
Director of photography: Soledad Rodriguez
Production designer: Adrian Suarez
Costume designer: Beatriz di Benedetto
Editor: Anita Remon
Casting director:
Sales: Still Moving

No rating, 82 minutes