'El Father Plays Himself': Film Review

El Father Plays Himself Still 1 - Publicity_h 2020
Courtesy of Mo Scarpelli
A tantalizing house of mirrors.

Mo Scarpelli's documentary chronicles the production of a narrative film that's set in the Venezuelan Amazon and directed by a young filmmaker who casts his nonactor father in the lead role.

Mo Scarpelli, a director and cinematographer with a knack for hybrid cinema, likes to turn her camera on people wielding cameras. In the 2015 documentary Frame by Frame, she and her co-director followed a handful of photojournalists in Afghanistan. For her second solo outing, El Father Plays Himself, Scarpelli takes a deep dive into meta territory, recounting the making of an emotionally charged feature that was shot in the Amazon jungle and cast with nonactors. In the process she delves provocatively into how and why we tell stories, and at what cost.           

El Father belongs to a tradition of nonfiction films about the blood, sweat and tears of feature production — among them Hearts of Darkness, Eleanor Coppola's famous behind-the-scenes look at Apocalypse Now, and the lesser-known 50 Days in the Desert, Fabrizio Maltese’s portrait of the Morocco shoot of NGO-workers drama The White Knights. Like those docs, it chronicles movie-set alchemy and friction in a far-flung place. What sets it apart, and lends it another layer of riveting intensity, is the father-son dynamic at its core.

Young filmmaker Jorge Thielen Armand wrote La Fortaleza, his second feature, about his father's colorful and troubled life, focusing on Jorge Roque Thielen's time in the Venezuelan Amazon, where he built a tourist camp and, in the '90s, became involved in illegal gold mining. The star of the film is the young filmmaker's father, portraying a character based on himself. Handsome and charismatic, he's also an alcoholic, and the burning fuse at the center of Scarpelli's sensitive, compelling film.

As biography feeds fiction, and both feed documentary, and as Thielen Armand and his crew settle in for six weeks in the jungle, Scarpelli is acutely attuned to the interplay between the two men, as well as the fallout on the rest of the filmmaking team. The narrative arcs of the real-life story and the movie version are revealed only in pieces, not unlike the way, on the feature film set, the director gives his lead actor the necessary material scene by scene. The mood-setting prompts include favorite passages from novels and drunken phone messages that Roque left his son from the depths of his misadventures in mining. A bit more of the plot of La Fortaleza — which was well reviewed at this year's Rotterdam fest — might have been helpful, but minute for minute, the push-pull between director and star is drama enough.

The two men's relationship has been primarily long-distance since the son left Venezuela at 15, presumably with his mother (who's heard briefly on the phone, offering clear-eyed and compassionate advice about her ex-husband). Roque's hair-trigger switches between charming and childishly cruel will be familiar to anyone who's known a dipsomaniac. Within the framework of the doc, as he alternately digs into his first starring role (he had a small part in his son's debut film, La Soledad) and keeps the filmmakers on tenterhooks with his disruptions, he holds the screen and then some. In his soulful eyes, Scarpelli captures the light of inspiration, the winces of self-recognition and the flashes of an unquenchable booze-fueled madness.

Roque's rages begin before shooting does. One of the producers urges the director to consider recasting. Surely his is the voice of reason — but as El Father illustrates so vividly, a movie without his father isn't the movie Thielen Armand wants to make. It's clear that he's working out something. And it's clear too that there's a level of co-dependency that his crew must navigate around.

Remarkably sanguine through much of his father's histrionics, the director attempts to control the man's level of drunkenness (a watered-down rum bottle turns out to be a futile gambit). At one point, co-writer and DP Rodrigo Michelangeli motions toward the inebriated Roque and asks Thielen Armand in quiet disbelief, "You're making up your mind based on what he says?"

At the helm of this multilayered chronicle, Scarpelli deftly draws the viewer toward the burning questions of what the filmmaker is after, and why he puts himself and his crew through the ordeal. They're variations on a bigger question: Why does any artist make what they make? Scarpelli doesn't exempt herself from such scrutiny; in a fleeting mirror image, she appears onscreen with her camera. And at a later point in the film, the railing father shouts at his son, "I bet Mo already has the scenes you want!" Beneath the abusive rant, he's probably right, just as his angry-edged joking about biographical rights stirs up timeless quandaries regarding the raw material of a life and who "owns" a story.

Through her own footage and old videos of Roque in his youth — unsurprisingly, on the precipice of a tepuy (table-top mountain) — Scarpelli finds the beauty and the undertow in the edge-of-the-world natural setting. Pulsing through this personal drama is the story of a country's social and economic upheaval. Home movies of the central duo in calmer times provide stark contrast to present-day Venezuela as well as to the challenging Amazon shoot.

"Isn't this a film about a man making amends with his son?" a concerned colleague asks Thielen Armand. El Father reveals a son inviting his father to make amends, but also forcing him to face tough truths. In two of its most piercing sequences, Scarpelli zeros in on the director watching his father acting. In one he operates the camera, moving in for a tight close-up. In the other, Roque goes mano a mano for a climactic fight scene, and Scarpelli keeps her lens on the son's reaction. She has an astute instinct for where to look, and she doesn't look away.

Production companies: La Faena Films, Ardimages UK and Rake Films in association with Channel 6 Media, Tres Venezuela
Featuring: Jorge Thielen Armand, Jorge Roque Thielen, Rodrigo Michelangeli, Yoni Naranjo
Director: Mo Scarpelli
Producers: Manon Ardisson, Rodrigo Michelangeli
Executive producers: Edward Power, Gordon Culley, Justin Madhany, Bart van den Broek
Director of photography: Mo Scarpelli
Editor: Juan Soto
Venue: Visions du Réel
Sales: Rake Films

In Spanish
105 minutes