‘Only Child’ (‘Hija Unica’): Film Review

ONLY CHILD - still 1 - H 2017
Courtesy of MYS Producciones
By turns involving and frustrating.

The mystery of who we are is explored in this challenging, understated family drama by Argentinian auteur Santiago Palavecino.

In Only Child, Santiago Palavecino takes an oft-filmed, still significant subject — the children of the "disappeared" men and women of the Argentinian dictatorships — and ambitiously gives it the kind of radically personal stylistic twist which is all-too easily labeled "pretentious." And in stretches, it is indeed just that — but in other stretches it’s intriguing, in others baffling, in others potent and in others striking. What this artistically bolder follow-up to Some Girls never quite achieves, largely because of sometimes bewildering flashbacks and ellipses, is full coherence.

Perfect for festival audiences willing to ride with its demands, Only Child is indeed a singular viewing experience, one which delivers only partial rewards for the challenges it offers.

The story has to be pieced together by the viewer as a jigsaw puzzle — and even when it’s all been put together, for many the resulting image will still look pretty blurry. In 2017, 21-year-old Delfina (Ailin Salas, from Palavecino’s Some Girls, again exploiting her fragile, dreamy appearance) returns to her Argentinian pueblo after 10 years away, to be greeted by her movie director father Juan (Juan Barberini, playing the character at three different stages of heavy-lidded, floppy hairdom). Delfina has been living in New York with her mother Berenice (Esmeralda Mitre), separated from Juan for reasons the film later explores in depth.

On arrival, Delfina stops off at the local cemetery, where she seems unsurprised to see that one of the gravestones has a photograph of a woman called Julia, who died in 1992, who looks exactly like her, and who’s also played by Salas. It would make a good hopping-off point for a thriller, but to call Only Child a thriller, or indeed particularly suspenseful, would be pushing it.

In the second, 2005 narrative, Juan, the son of a disappeared couple who was adopted and raised by another family, wrestles with the legacy of that as he raises Delfina along with Berenice, while the third story explores the largely physical relationship between Juan and Julia, which will end in tragedy in 1992. A couple too many other stories unfold in between these.

So the same actress plays a daughter and the lover of the same man who is her father. Why? Only Child suggests — in the personality issues that both the child Delfina and her father have — that she may have taken on some of the characteristics of his dead lover Julia, and indeed a couple of scenes explicitly feature, quite unnecessarily, psychologists who are dealing with the precise issue of whether trauma can be inherited (this culturally literate film begins with a few onscreen lines from Montaigne on broadly the same subject). In countries which have wrestled with violent dictatorships, stories about how the past impedes on the present inevitably become political, and this is no exception — but here it’s the personal which stays in the foreground.

The fragmentary narrative is probably appropriate to a film about fragmented identity, about the difficulty of putting ourselves together, but as a dramatic experience it can be frustrating. As a generation-hopping yarn about the pain wrought on families by politics, Only Child could very easily have made for a melodramatic piece, which Palavecino is only too aware of, given his liberal use of a score by that most melodramatic of composers, Prokofiev. But that’s where the melodrama stops — despite nods by DP Fernando Lockett to the genre — and despite the impressive manner in which Palavecino rearranges his dramatic and filmic pieces, little emotion is transferred from the screen and into the heart.

Jump cuts are overused, but sometimes welcome as the pacing is often slow; this combination of extreme ellipsis with narrative slowness can be unsettling. Tonally, the film is largely about its intimate, naturalistic conversations, delivered via intense, committed performances which are strong across the board — with the enchanting Carmela Rodriguez standing out as Delfina at five, coming over as somewhat more articulate and perceptive than Delfina at twenty. Camerawork by Palavecino regular Fernando Lockett (a minor character is named as Lockett, perhaps in self-reflexive homage by the script), handheld throughout, is often memorably striking by virtue of its lighting, the attractively composed shots never meaning that the intimacy is sacrificed, or indeed the slightly magical air of the half-remembered which hangs over it all.

One of the final scenes has two characters sitting side by side in silence for a long time, before they turn to one another and share a wry, complicit smile. Yes, they’ve come to an understanding; but what lies behind their smiles remains an enigma, making it a fitting close to a challenging film about how little we can know about who we are.

Production company: MYS Producciones, Volpe Films
Cast: Esmeralda Mitre, Juan Barberini, Ailin Salas, Carmela Rodriguez, Luciano Linardi, Stella Galazzi, Susana Pampin
Director-screenwriter: Santiago Palavecino
Producers: Marcelo Figoli, Mili Roque Pitt, Diego Radivoy, Alejandro Montiel, Gabriela Ruggeri, Fernando Manero, Santiago Palavecino
Executive producer: Agustina Costa Varsi,
Director of photography: Fernando Lockett
Production designer: Victoria Marotta
Costume designer: Ruth Fischermann
Editor: Andres Perez Estrada
Sales: MYS Producciones

110 minutes