The Dead Man and Being Happy (El Muerto y ser feliz): San Sebastian Review

Dead Man and Being Happy Still - H 2012
A strain of quirkily deadpan humor narrowly steers an ambitiously self-deconstructing screenplay away from becoming just another arid exercise in tricky formal techniques.

José Sacristán and Roxana Blanco star in Spanish writer-director Javier Rebollo's offbeat road-movie, a contender for the festival's Golden Shell.

A lugubrious road-movie following a terminally-ill hitman over thousands of miles through Argentina, The Dead Man and Being Happy (El Muerto y ser feliz) requires audiences willing to embrace its Patagonia-dry gallows humor. This third directorial outing for Spanish director/co-writer Javier Rebollo has its North American premiere at the New York Film Festival a week after bowing in competition at San Sebastian, where his compelling Madrid nocturne Woman Without Piano landed the Best Director prize in 2009.

Similar gongs and critical support will be vital for this less focused follow-up to have much life outside festivals - San Sebastian's Screenplay honor is a distinct possibility. Rebollo's unorthodox choice of leading man, hangdog veteran José Sacristán, will help commercial prospects in their pair's native Spain.

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Despite his life-battered world-weariness, Sacristán – best known to international audiences for 1992’s Oscar-disqualified A Place in the World - is the closest thing this somewhat cerebral affair has to an emotional center, and is likely to pick up a trophy or two for his deft underplaying. His taciturn Santos is a Spaniard who, opening narration informs us, has lived in Argentina for more than half of his 75 years, and has racked up over a hundred kills in his unlikely career as a professional assassin.

Approaching his own final curtain thanks to three malignant tumors, he relies on morphine injections to dull his pain and blunt insistent memories of the men and women he has ‘taken out.’ Tasked with one final job by a mysterious bespectacled contact (non-pro Jorge Jellinek from Uruguay's festival smash A Useful Life), he deliberately botches the mission and instead flees into the northern hinterlands at the wheel of his 1970s  Ford Falcon. Along the way he picks up a woman more than three decades his junior, Erika (Roxana Blanco), who is escaping personal problems of her own and has a past history of romance with men old enough to be her father...

The extremely slowly-developing relationship between Santos and Erika provides the awkwardly-titled Dead Man and Being Happy with some much-needed embers of warmth amid what’s generally a very glum, bleak kind of just-so 'comedy.' But their wanderings are primarily of interest for the wide range of different landscapes and locations they visit, most of them run-down or faded in some way. As detailed during jauntily offbeat closing titles, the Argentina-Spain-France co-production traversed over “5000 kilometers” of this vast country.

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It's all fresh cinematic terrain for Rebollo and his collaborating scriptwriter Lola Mayo, both of whose previous pictures – starting in 2006 with the Paris-set What I Know About Lola – were claustrophobically urban affairs. But such wanderlust is par for the course when it comes to the third name on the screenplay, Salvador Roselli, who co-wrote kilometer-clocking South American enterprises Bombon El Perro (2004), Liverpool (2008) and Las Acacias (2011) with each of those films’ directors.

But while The Dead Man and Being Happy trades on a familiar odd-couple dynamic as Las Acacias, it has none of the unassuming simplicity that boosted Pablo Giorgelli’s internationally-distributed charmer. Instead, Rebollo and Mayo head in a much more audacious and potentially alienating direction by extensive use of omniscient authorial voice-over spoken by themselves – mainly Mayo. The narration informs us about what’s going on, what’s being said, where we are and how all of this is impacting on the characters.

Indeed, while Santiago Racaj's cinematography relies on atmospherically grainy 16mm celluloid, the soundtrack is a boldly non-realistic, multi-layered affair that includes brief spells of total silence and various semi-experimental stylizations courtesy of a hard-working sound-team headed by Pelayo Gutiérrez and Dani Fontrodona. Their contributions are impressive if a touch distracting, in an enterprise which Rebollo just about manages to keep the right side of the line dividing the engagingly offbeat from the self-regardingly clever-clever.

Venue: San Sebastian Film Festival, Spain (Competition)

Production companies: Icónica; Eddie Saeta

Cast: José Sacristán, Roxana Blanco, Jorge Jellinek, Valeria Alonso, Carlos Lecuona

Director: Javier Rebollo

Screenwriters: Javier Rebollo, Lola Mayo, Salvador Roselli

Producers: José Nolla, Luis Miñarro               

Executive producers: Verónica Cura, Lola Mayo

Director of photography: Santiago Racaj

Production designer: Miguel Ángel Rebollo                              

Editor: Ángel Hernández Zoido                     

Sales agent: Urban Distribution, Paris

No rating, 94 minutes