'Figures' ('Figuras'): Film Review | San Sebastian 2018

San Sebastian International Film Festival
Minor marvel pits TLC against ALS.

Spain-based Argentinian director Eugenio Canevari's sophomore outing premiered in the Latin American sidebar at the long-running Basque Country festival.

Three years after debuting at San Sebastian with the outstanding mid-lengther Paula, Barcelona-based Argentinian writer-director Eugenio Canevari steps up to feature length in modestly triumphant style with his 87-minute Figuras (Figures). A docu-fiction hybrid about an ailing senior lady and the boyfriend and daughter who take turns as her caretaker, this black-and-white study of human endurance, communication and compassion manages to be both austere and moving. Very strong public reactions to the world premiere augur well for the film's festival career, and despite a forgettably bland title, it will have no difficulty scoring berths — and probably prizes — at both documentary-oriented and general events around the world.

A resident of the Catalan capital since moving there for studies a decade ago, Canevari here provides elliptical glimpses into the lives of fellow Argentines who have made the same trans-Atlantic relocation. But we learn few biographical details about Stella, her sixtysomething partner Paco or her daughter Valeria; the filmmakers are more concerned with depicting details of their daily lives in and around Stella's city-center apartment.

The tripod-mounted camera often peers through doorways and other spatial restrictions, creating a sense of privileged domestic intimacy mixed with a certain level of detachment and tactful respect. What unfolds is a series of episodes presumably drawn directly from life, but filtered through a light fictional scrim. End credits specify that the protagonists collaborated on the screenplay, and also include mention of an acting coach for these non-professionals.

The first half introduces Stella and her plight: Struck down by the degenerative condition amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease), she has reduced mobility and is unable to speak. But while her body is failing, Stella's mind is evidently still sharp: She's able to communicate with Paco and Valeria, and spends most of her days happily watching old Westerns on TV. "You know these movies are bad, mommy!" scolds Valeria.

Canevari and his editor Didac Palou occasionally provide glimpses of these action-packed films, plus judiciously chosen snippets of dialogue: "I'm too old to believe in miracles," one cowboy is heard remarking. Stella and Paco similarly have no illusions about what life holds in store.

At first, we presume they are a married couple, so tender is the apparently long-standing bond between the two, and so it's a surprise to learn that they have actually been together for "only" seven years. Paco nevertheless personifies uxoriousness, devoting himself to his caretaking responsibilities ("I'm with her until death, whatever happens") before consoling himself with glasses of red wine from bottles which seem ever-present at the corner of the frame during living-room scenes.

At pretty much exactly the halfway point, Paco is suddenly hospitalized due to a "burst vein," and the focus shifts to the similarly dutiful Valeria — the picture's even-handed emphasis making it clear that blood is no thicker than water. In this second half, the television fades from prominence, Stella receiving more direct stimulation from a memory game she often plays on her handheld tablet and which speaks to her in clipped, robotic English ("Dog, dog, hedgehog, swallow...")

Some of the more dramatic developments involving Stella and Paco's deterioration are evidently the consequences of screenwriting decisions rather than real-life happenings, but Figures very confidently blends its modes of observation in an unobtrusive and cumulatively engrossing fashion. As with Paula, Canevari's casual compositional flair is a consistent plus — he works low-key marvels here with Michele Falci and Enrique Rico, neither of whom have any previous feature credits to their name, crafting a work of simple, direct, nicely judged humanism.

It stands as a heartfelt and tender tribute to personal dignity maintained in highly trying circumstances — Stella's status as an undocumented migrant, her visa having long since expired, presents several bureaucratic hurdles for Paco and Valeria to address. Externally imposed categories and definitions are revealed as essentially arbitrary: married and unmarried, Spanish and Argentinian, documentary and fiction. And while the situations depicted are objectively grim and painful, Canevari and company deliver an unashamedly romantic finale which offers grains of optimism that are as welcome as they are hard won.

Production companies: Faneca Films, Mama Hungara
Cast: Francisco "Paco" Rodriguez, Stella Maris Santo, Valeria Ballerini
Director: Eugenio Canevari
Screenwriters: Eugenio Canevari, Melina Pereyra ("and the actors")
Producers: Eugenio Canevari, Felipe Yaryura
Executive producers: Melina Pereyra, Renata Daoud
Cinematographers: Michele Falci, Enrique Rico
Editor: Didac Palou
Composer: Patricio Canevari
Sound: Mercedes Tennina
Venue: San Sebastian International Film Festival (Horizontes Latinos)
Sales: The Open Reel, Turin, Italy (cs@theopenreel.com)

In Spanish
87 minutes