The Empty Hours: San Sebastian Review

Extremely leisurely but never dull, this sensitively made film is filled with a radiant performance from Venezuelan actress Adriana Paz.

Backwoods coming-of-age yarn from Mexican first-timer Aaron Fernandez.

A slight anecdote expanded to slightly beyond its natural length, The Empty Hours is nevertheless time well spent. Set in Mexico's Veracruz, this poignantly comic tale gets new mileage out of the younger-man-meets-older-woman theme, and the whole thing is infused with a delicacy that makes it easy to forgive its occasional slipup. Featuring a memorable performance by Adriana Paz as a slighted but defiant lover and directed by Aaron Fernandez, following up his well-received 2007 debut Used Parts, Hours merits attention from festivals with time to kill.

It is based on the unlikely initial premise that 17-year-old Sebastian (Kristyan Ferrer) is left in charge of his uncle's motel rooms, which basically function as a rendezvous for cheating couples. Two such clients are real estate seller Miranda (Paz) and her married lover.

Sebastian's empty hours in his new position are spent cleaning Kleenex-strewn beds, hanging out with a local coconut seller, looking to find a maid. His dead time is accurately, meaning dully, rendered. But ever so slowly, the outgoing, bouncy and ever-optimistic Miranda and the shy, timid Sebastian get to know one another during her lengthy waits for her lover's arrivals. Their quirky little exchanges, imbued with unconscious humor, are among the film's high points, and like the film as a whole are charming without ever being merely cute.

Given the nature of his work, Sebastian's hormones are active and the scene has indeed been set for a relationship between them -- but as it plays out it's a wonderfully drawn relationship, less about sex than about their mutual insecurities, of which their empty hours have made the two characters painfully aware. The pace and interest pick up well through the film's second half, though Fernandez continues to hold the camera on sometimes unnecessary shots for a beat or two too long.

Ferrer gives a flat, over-muted performance as a character whose emotional journey is already way too familiar, but the damage is limited, first because he's playing an awkward character anyway, and second because Paz has enough vigor for both of them. Bright, sexy and fun, she nevertheless suggests a hidden sorrow when she claims to Sebastian that she's a free spirit who has chosen to be a lover rather than a wife. Her melancholy comes increasingly to the fore as the film continues, making Miranda a memorably complex figure. But, at least in the original Spanish, the pacing and dynamics of scenes in which Paz doesn't appear are sometimes clunky.

The storm-battered location, with its run-down appearance and waving palm trees, conveys both sensuousness and an appropriately isolated air. Fernandez's script is good on the little details that make matters plausible -- the motel garage spaces, for example, have pull-across curtains so that client's cars cannot be recognized from the highway. Camilo Froideval's score is simple, guitar-based fare with a hint of melancholy that fits in well with the general mood. The beat-up Volkswagen that Miranda drives has so much charm that it's almost like an extra character.

Production: Santa Lucia Cine, Comunicacion Fractal, Tita Productions, FOPROCINE
Cast: Kristyan Ferrer, Adriana Paz, Eliseo Lara Martinez, Fermin Martinez, Bartolo Campos, Rebeca Villacorte
Director, screenwriter: Aaron Fernandez
Producers: Aaron Fernandez, Christophe Bouffil, Fred Premel, Alejandro Palma
Executive producer: Elsa Reyes
Director of photography: Javier Moron
Production designer: Patricia de Burgos
Costume designer: Laura García De La Mora
Editor: Ana Laura Calderon
Music: Camilo Froideval
Sales: Urban Distribution
No rating, 115 minutes