'The Intruder' ('El Profugo'): Film Review | Berlin 2020

THE INTRUDER - EL PROFUGO - Berlin International Film Festival -H 2020
Courtesy of Rei Cine SRL, Picnic Producciones SRL
Let the wrong one in.

Natalia Meta ('Death in Buenos Aires') directs Erica Rivas in a tongue-in-cheek psychological horror film from Argentina about a voice actress haunted by inner noises.

Argentine writer and director Natalia Meta builds on the success of her popular first film, the gay mystery Death in Buenos Aires, in The Intruder (El Profugo), the story of a voice actress and singer whose vocal cords begin to betray her. The hypothesis, as she comes to formulate it, is that intruders who have escaped from her dreams are trying to take over her body. It’s pretty much a one-woman show for actress Erica Rivas, who brings a sense of fun to a fast-paced comedy about schizophrenia, if that’s what it is.

To be honest, there really isn’t much more here, psychologically speaking, than a humorous variation on an identity crisis in the wake of a traumatic shock, a special kind of madness to which actors, who are used to splitting their personalities in two when they play a role, are particularly susceptible. But the spirit of the film is one of mischievous fun, and the story’s refusal to take itself seriously wins a regular laugh. It looked lightweight for a slot in the Berlin competition, but could slip into the hearts of art house patrons.

We meet Ines (Rivas) while she is in the recording studio dubbing a horror film involving bondage and a terrified masked girl. But the growing terror on Ines’ own face is much more real than the dreamlike close-ups on the veiled projection screen. The tension is shattered a moment later when Nelson (Agustin Rittano), the sound engineer, calls cut and Ines answers him in a normal professional voice. The scene serves as a succinct reminder of how easy it is to manipulate the audience’s perceptions.

Early on, in some of the film’s most successfully ambiguous scenes, Ines takes a vacation with new beau Leopoldo (a delightfully insufferable Daniel Hendler), who makes a prize pest of himself while they’re still on the plane. When she falls asleep, she dreams the flight attendant has strangled him to death. Wishful thinking.

Since the audience is still trying to figure out where the story is going, Meta gets more mileage out of a scene in their hotel room. Leopoldo drives Ines so crazy with his questions and insecurity that she locks herself in the bathroom, while he does something highly unexpected that removes him from the rest of the film. His death is ruled a suicide, but most viewers will want to leave a reasonable doubt about that verdict, because there was a distinct sound of scuffling on the other side of the door.

Ines resumes her normal life but she isn’t the same. She can’t sleep and starts taking meds, which everyone prescribes for her. And her work goes into a tailspin: every time she tries to dub someone there is a mysterious electromagnetic interference that ruins the recording with random noise. Nelson likens it to the sounds generated when an elderly man tried to dub Gandalf in Lord of the Rings. It turned out to be his pacemaker.

The solution to what is making noise is offered by another denizen of the dark recording studio, the silver-haired actress Adela (Mirta Busnelli), who bluntly informs Ines, “You have an intruder.” He came to her in a nightmare and she has inadvertently invited him to stay inside her.

Mixing jokes, horror schlock and a growing atmosphere of mystery, the plot rolls on. One day Ines’ interfering mother (an archly funny Cecilia Roth) arrives from the country for a visit and begins passing judgment on a new boy who interests Ines, but whom Mom sees as a bit gay. Alberto (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart) is a big-eyed, sensitive musician who is engaged in the Herculean task of tuning an organ in a modern concert hall, where the soaring wood panels are lit with a spookiness worthy of Phantom of the Opera, and the labyrinth of backstage corridors hold a sinister promise. This is where Ines has her chorus rehearsal, though lately her soprano voice has begun failing her and the Maestro has moved her into the contralto section.

When she embarks on several absurd fix-its to rid herself of her intruder(s), the action flags. The final resolution, with its wink at gender choices, is enjoyable enough, but it lacks the punch to close the film with a bang.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (competition)
Production companies: Rei Cine, Picnic Producciones in association with Barraca Producciones, Infinity Hill

Cast: Erica Rivas, Nahuel Pérez Biscayart, Daniel Hendler, Cecilia Roth, Guillermo Arengo, Agustin Rittano, Mirta Busnelli
Director: Natalia Meta
Screenwriters: Natalia Meta, Leonel D’Agostino, based on C. E. Feiling’s novel
Producers: Benjamin Domenech, Santiago Gallelli, Matias Roveda, Natalia Meta, Fabiana Tiscornia
Director of photography: Barbara Alvarez
Production designer: Aili Chen
Costume designer: Monica Toschi
Editor: Eliane Katz
Music: Luciano Azzigotti
World sales: Film Factory Entertainment
90 minutes