The Distance (La distancia): Rotterdam Review

Catalan prankster's second bizarro provocation confirms the unhinged singularity of his comic vision.

Sergio Caballero's Siberia-set science-fiction comedy from Catalonia world-premiered at the Dutch festival.

A heist-movie of such exquisitely bizarre loopiness to make Inception look like Ocean's Eleven, Sergio Caballero's The Distance (La distancia) is a likeably giggle-inducing dollop of deadpan surrealist whimsy. Observing a trio of telepathic Russian dwarves tasked with robbing an abandoned Siberian power-station, Caballero's follow-up to 2010's even more deliciously outre Finisterrae confirms the Catalan's status as a puckish jester in the court of current European art-cinema. Adventurous audiences enduring the longueurs and waywardness of his gloriously uncompromised vision are rewarded with a hilariously abrupt finale that should delight many but leave others baffled and bemused. Festivals with late-night slots to fill will clamor for this cultish item, which might even find small distribution niches in eccentricity-embracing territories such as Japan and France.

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Finisterrae, which picked up a Tiger award at Rotterdam in 2010 during a successful festival run, larkishly combined aspects of several more august examples of Spanish cinema, principally Luis Bunuel's The Milky Way and Albert Serra's arch picaresques Honor of the Knights and Birdsong. Now the writer-director, on this evidence a hardcore David Lynch nut, takes as his main inspiration Andrei Tarkovsky's revered 1979 classic of dystopian sci-fi, Stalker, visual nods to which abound throughout courtesy of Marc Gomez del Moral's arrestingly classy widescreen digital cinematography.

But if The Distance presents a technical package of steely, even austere professionalism - its multi-layered soundscapes add immensely to the mood - that package's contents are gleefully bonkers from beginning to end. Russian-language voiceover sketches the wild premise, involving the "purchase" and imprisonment of an Austrian conceptual artist by an immoral post-Soviet oligarch. The nameless artist, whose work is strongly redolent of Germany's Joseph Beuys, is sequestered in a rambling example of Stalin-era industrial plant, set amid bleaky spectacular countryside. His face caked with brown clay like a mutant refugee from the Blue Man Group, this wordless, automaton-like figure hires three gentlemen of restricted growth to steal a particular item - known as 'The Distance' - from elsewhere in the power-station.

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The nature and purpose of the eponymous Distance is McGuffin and crux of the film - but suffice to say it turns out to be a "great whatsit" in the noble lineage of noir classics like Kiss Me Deadly. Over the course of a week, we track the preparations for the burglary which the dwarves concoct from their trailer-like homes parked nearby, each of them possessed with certain special powers ranging from standard-issue telekinesis to much wackier - and more sexually weird - forms of ESP.

Caballero's humor is absurdist, idiosyncratic and wildly uneven, the latter a perhaps inevitable symptom of what seems to have been near-total creative carte blanche. Many of the gags fall oddly flat, but overall the hit-rate is sufficiently high to justify the time and effort expended. Indeed, The Distance itself is in effect a single, audaciously sustained, feature-length joke, one with a charmingly rug-pulling punchline.

Venue: International Film Festival Rotterdam (Bright Future), 26 January 2014
Production companies: Advanced Music / Sonar, Arcadia Motion Pictures
Cast: Michal Lagosz, Alberto Martinez, Jinson Anazco, Roland Olbeter, FX Vidi Vidal
Director/Screenwriter: Sergio Caballero
Producers: Sergio Caballero, Ibon Cormenzana
Director of photography: Marc Gomez del Moral
Production designer: Jordi Picazos
Costume designer: Jordi Perez
Editor: Marti Roca
Music: Pedro Alcalde, Sergio Caballero
Sales: Advanced Music / Sonar, Barcelona
No MPAA rating, 83 minutes