'To the Desert' ('Al Desierto'): Film Review | San Sebastian 2017

Courtesy of San Sebastian International Film Festival
From gritty terrain, a Patagonian pearl.

Argentinian writer-director Ulises Rosell's road-movie premiered at the Basque Country festival.

Love blossoms from the dustiest ground in Ulises Rosell's To the Desert (Al Desierto), a likably offbeat return to fiction for the writer-director a decade after his award-winning local success Sofabed (2006). One of a slew of distinguished Argentinian features to bow this fall alongside Lucrecia Martel's Zama, Anahi Berneri's Alanis and Natalia Garagiola's Alanis, this Patagonian picaresque proves that there's cinematic life in that country on both sides of the male-female divide. Questions of gender underpin Rosell's lean, smart and surprising screenplay in this Chilean co-production, which confirms his status as one of Latin America's most quietly distinctive cinematic voices.

Five years have elapsed since his well-observed, subtly moving documentary The Ethnographer, and Rosell once again focuses on marginal lives in remote locations. Julia (Valentina Bassi) is unsatisfied with her casino job in the coastal city of Comodoro Rivadavia — her wages are specified as 25,000 pesos ($1,400) per month. After a chance encounter with gambler Gwynfor (Jorge Sesan), she impulsively decides to take up his offer of more lucrative employment at the inland oil company where he works. But as he drives her increasingly deep into the unpopulated countryside, Julia soon realizes that something is very much amiss. Her panicked reaction results in a car crash, forcing them to trek through miles of scenic but inhospitable terrain.

Rosell repeatedly catches the viewer off-guard throughout, developing the relationship between Julia and Gwynfor (much is made of this taciturn, resourceful dude's Welsh ancestry) across shifting sands of mistrust, mutual reliance and haphazardly budding affection. Eschewing the obvious two-hander route, Rosell cuts back and forth between his main protagonists and a pair of cops — aided by a veteran (but possibly less than expert) tracker — following their trail. Along the way all manner of supporting characters and intriguing locations are patiently, organically accumulated in a screenplay which sparkles with low-key humor while covering a surprising amount of terrain both geographically and thematically.

Julian Apezteguia's widescreen images repeatedly emphasize the fragility and vulnerability of humans in these unimaginably vast spaces: Julia and Gwynfor are often dwarfed by geological features of the desert, just as they were by the huge frontage of the casino where they first met. Performances are rock-solid from the smallest to the biggest roles, with Bassi and Sesan making for an unorthodox but highly engaging duo.

Music cues are rather more prominent and audacious than one might expect from the material, with shimmery contributions from Miranda y Tobal occasionally and profitably endowing proceedings with a thriller-like air redolent of the 1970s and '80s. Rosell also includes extracts of compositions by Russian composer Eduard Artemiev originally written for Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker and Solaris. And while by no means destined for that kind of enduring masterpiece status, To The Desert — which wears its debts to Gus Van Sant (Gerry) and Nicolas Roeg (Walkabout) lightly — has more than enough character of its own to repay audience patience. Not for the first time with Rosell, the destination proves emphatically worthwhile.

Production companies: Wanka Cine, Triciclo Films, Ajimolido Films
Cast: Valentina Bassi, Jorge Sesan, Jose Maria Marcos, German De Silva, Gaston Salgado
Director-screenwriter: UIises Rosell
Producers: Ezequiel Borovinsky, Catalina Donoso, Alejandro Israel
Cinematographer: Julian Apezteguia
Production designers: Marina Raggio, Nicolas Oyarce
Costume designer: Carina Rosell
Editor: Alejandro Brodersohn
Composers: Miranda y Tobal
Venue: San Sebastian International Film Festival (Horizontes Latinos)
Sales: Wanka Cine, Buenos Aires (info@wanka.tv)

In Spanish
94 minutes