The Delay: Berlin Film Review

Berlinale Film Festival
Uruguayan family drama’s strong direction is undermined by screenplay weaknesses.

Rodrigo Pla's drama follows a middle-aged Montevideo woman who struggles to take care of her three children and 80-year-old father, whose health is deteriorating.

The stresses and strains of looking after an elderly father prove far too much for a middle-aged Montevideo woman in The Delay (La demora), a powerfully atmospheric third feature from Uruguay’s Rodrigo Pla. Evoking a range of working-class Montevideo settings — both exterior and interior — via skilled cinematography and sound design, this slow-paced, claustrophobic nightmare is strong on mood and ambience but is let down by some questionable screenplay developments in the second half. The combination of a serious, universally applicable theme (the plight of seniors) and such palpable directorial flair will, however, ensure wide and extensive festival play.

Early scenes take us right into the cramped city apartment where 40-something Maria (Roxana Blanco) lives with her three school-age children and 80-year-old father, Agustin (Carlos Vallarino, affectingly bewildered). It’s clearly a struggle for the sallow-faced Maria to make ends meet and to juggle all of her commitments including her low-paid job sewing in a factory. Agustin has periods of lucidity, but his mental deterioration is such that Maria explores the possibility of his either living with another relative or moving into some kind of care facility. When both of these options are found wanting — on the same day — Maria semi-impulsively abandons Agustin on a bench in a remote suburb, returning home, where she quickly is consumed with guilt over her actions. As Maria searches the shelters where — after anonymously tipping off the authorities — she presumes Agustin will have been taken, the old man sits stoically on the bench waiting for his daughter to return. But night is falling and, with it, the temperature. …

Why Maria doesn’t just go back to where she left Agustin in the first place is a nagging question that Laura Santullo’s screenplay never addresses — the detail of Maria calling the authorities doesn’t quite hold water. Maria behaving more rationally would certainly make for a shorter movie, as this visibly down-trodden, desperate and lonely woman — there’s no mention of what happened to her children’s father(s) — spends much of its second half being driven around the city’s shelters by a helpful (and implausibly love-smitten) neighbor, just as Agustin is having to rely on the kindness of strangers. Indeed, while the Montevideo we see in The Delay is a grubby, dilapidated city, painted in unhealthy, mildew shades of gray and blue, community spirit is alive and well here, with people looking out for each other in what’s clearly a cold climate both economically and heat-wise (and where humor of any kind is decidedly thin on the ground).  

And even if Maria’s actions feel more the result of scriptwriting contrivance than organic character development, Pla and his collaborators have crafted a pungently textured environment in which we’re deeply immersed. Compositions — sometimes centered, sometimes off-kilter — are frequently unorthodox and unfussily striking, with Maria Secco’s cinemascope camera minutely observing crucial details while allowing other parts of the frame to lie out of focus. Fabian Oliver’s soundscapes, meanwhile — with sound design by Alejandro de Icaza, Sergio Diaz and Arturo Zarate — are a multilayered wonder of urban noise and susurrations, the pivotal sequence of Agustin’s abandonment marked by a swellingly clangorous cacophony whose aftershocks resonate.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Forum), Feb. 10, 2012.
Cast: Carlos Vallarino, Roxana Blanco
Production company: Lulu Producciones (in co-production with Memento Films and Malbicho Cine)
Director: Rodrigo Pla
Screenwriter: Laura Santullo
Producers: Christian Valdelievre, Sandino Saravia Vinay, Rodrigo Pla
Co-producer: Alexandre Mallet-Guy
Director of photography:  Maria Secco
Production designer: Mariana Pereira
Costumes: Malena de La Riva, Adriana Levin
Editor: Miguel Shverdfinger
Music: Jacobo Lieberman, Leonardo Heiblum