La Paz: London Review

A film whose care for its characters still comes through loud and clear despite its potentially alienating slowness and Loza’s sometimes self-defeating desire to upend standard storytelling strategies.

This challenging study of a dysfunctional family from Santiago Loza took Best Argentinian Film at Buenos Aires earlier this year.

The struggle towards recovery of a young man following psychiatric care is chopped up and rearranged into a different kind of viewing experience in La Paz. Loza has never been scared of alienating viewers with his slowness and formal games, but in this oddly affecting tale of a dysfunctional family dealing with change, as with the best of his work, the most important thing is the people. The director’s experiments have made him a regular on the festival circuit since 2003’s Strange, and La Paz, following its Buenos Aires success earlier in the year, looks set to follow suit.

Liso (Lisandro Rodriguez) returns from hospital into the bosom of his wealthy, bourgeois mother (Andrea Strenitz), who has little to do with her time apart from paint and smother Liso with love, and businessman father (Ricardo Felix), who teaches his son how to shoot a gun and gives him money to go and spend on prostitutes. Although it’s never made explicit, there’s every chance that it’s Liso’s family life which drove him into the psychiatric hospital in the first place: “If you don’t want to live any more,” his mother murmurs helpfully into Liso’s ear, “then all you have to do is tell me”.

It is Liso’s job to try and rebuild his life, but since neither of his parents seem emotionally capable of helping out, he spends most of his time with his grandmother (the insanely watchable Beatriz Bernabe, the director’s own grandmother, not a professional actress), whom he takes out for ice creams on the back of the new motor bike his parents have bought him as a substitute for their love, and with the family’s Bolivian maid Sonia (Fidelia Batallanos Michel, also a non-pro). It is with these two rather than with his family that Liso is able to feel.

Otherwise, Liso contacts a series of ex-girlfriends for meetings which inevitably end badly: to a large degree, his social and emotional skills have gone AWOL.

With regard to Liso, his mother that she is living in the past, which is neatly conveyed by her reproducing on the wall a charcoal image of him as a child. She is refusing to let him grow. The father offers only outmoded models of masculinity in the form of gun play. It is thus to an outsider that he’s inevitably drawn, in the figure of the quiet, wise Sonia, through whose figure the films makes its political points.

The story of a dysfunctional family should be told in a dysfunctional manner, and Loza obliges. The story comes via separate titled chapters which focus on moments of intense meanings rather than via a standard fluid narrative, though without ever becoming confusing: indeed, this rearrangement of his themes had the effect of highlighting them still more clearly.

Such formal games-playing could easily have a distancing effect, but the director’s primary focus is always on his characters, whether metaphorically – it’s their hopes and fears he’s most interested in – or literally: a great deal of screen time is devoted to close ups of their faces, often in silence. This can be very powerful, as when Sonia tells the mother that she misses everything about Bolivia while the camera is trained on the mother’s suddenly lost expression to suggest that she, too is at some level missing everything.

But the slow approach suggests that there’ll be some dead time, and there is: at one point, the audience is treated to a scene in which Liso quietly dozes off in front of the television.

Performances are fine, with Rodriguez, who previously appeared in Loza’s The Invention of Flesh, best during the blank-faced but tense Liso’s more animated moments, which are actually few and far between: mostly it’s a question of playing it fairly catatonic. d.p. Ivan Fund (co-director with Loza on Loza’s last film, The Lips) and production designer Adrian Suarez work together to create a bourgeois world of cleanly-lit, spiritually vacant interiors where there is often a lazy animal to be seen sprawling in the background.

Production: Frutacine, Morocha Films, Alta Definicion Argentina, Tres Sonido
Cast: Lisandro Rodriguez, Andrea Strenitz,Fidelia Batallanos Michel, Ricardo Felix, Beatriz Bernabe, Pilar Gamboa,Lorena Vega, Fernanda Perez Bodria,
Director, screenwriter: Santiago Loza
Producers: Loza, Ivan Eibuszyc
Director of photography: Ivan Fund
Production designer: Adrian Suarez
Music: Javier Ntcaca
Editor: Lorena Moriconi, Valeria Otheguy
Sound: Leandro de Laredo, Agustin Casola
Sales: FiGa Films
No rating, 77 minutos