The Lock Charmer (El cerrajero): Sundance Review

"The Lock Charmer"
A modest but quite charming feature about an Argentinean locksmith who unlocks truths about the lives of his clients.

The second feature of Argentinean director Natalia Smirnoff ("Puzzle") stars Esteban Lamothe as the titular protagonist.

An Argentinean locksmith discovers he has brief epiphanies about the lives of the owners of the locks he fixes in Lock Charmer (El cerrajero), the small-scale but indeed quite charming sophomore feature of Natalia Smirnoff (Puzzle).

The so-called "Smoke Days" that occurred for a couple of weeks in Buenos Aires in 2008, when the city was blanketed in a malodorous fog of unknown origin, are the perfect backdrop for Smirnoff's story, with its occasional touches of magical realism, though her small cast of characters finally emerges as recognizably human despite the somewhat unnatural twists and turns of the story. After a world premiere at Sundance, this humble, 75-minute tale will work its modest magic at other festivals and in niche release in the Hispanosphere.

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Sebastian or simply Sebas (Esteban Lamothe) is a locksmith who’s often called upon to help people who’ve been locked in or out of their own homes. Perhaps exactly because precision is a key part of his profession, in his private life he’s the non-committal kind. When his sort-of girlfriend, Monica (Erica Rivas), announces she’s pregnant, Sebas is not quite sure how to react, though he finally suggests he knows a doctor that could take care of it, a solution Monica seems unsure about.

Around the same time, and with the strange fog clouding the streets of the city, he starts having short, insightful visions about the private lives of his clients. The trouble is that he can’t keep these epiphanies to himself, blurting out the occasionally pretty harsh truths as soon as he starts fiddling with his clients’ locks. Reactions vary from annoyance to anger and he gets himself into unforseen trouble when he finds himself telling a maid (Yosiria Huaripata) that he knows that the person who burgled her employer’s house, and ruined the locks in the process, is actually her good-for-nothing, gambling-addicted boyfriend (a man he's never met).

Smirnoff directs these scenes in a straightforwardly observed manner that suggests Sebas doesn’t know the explanation for that’s happening either but decides to simply take it in stride as best he can, perhaps relieved to know that, though his own life is full of uncertainties and somewhat directionless -- with his fate tied to whatever decision Monica will make about her pregnancy -- at least there seems to be a kind of celestial certainty, order and absolute truth about the direction of the lives of his clients. 

The relationship between the Sebastian and the maid, who sort of moves in with him after she’s left her boyfriend and has become homeless, has some religious aspects as well, including an odd ritual involving an egg. Though Smirnoff thankfully refuses to explain too much, the material seems to suggest not only that maybe there might be a kind of divine order that somehow guides our lives but, much more crucially, that humans struggle to find the sense or direction of their own lives even though they can see it in other people’s lives quite clearly.

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The idea of order is further echoed in Sebas’ painstaking construction of a music box mechanism made from combs from locks and safes he’s repaired, though he’s struggling to make it sound right. A visit to his lonely father (Sergio Boris) in the countryside unlocks both this and many other issues in his life.

In a low-key but precise performance, Lamothe, who played a character that was a lot more active in the political-educational drama The Student, plays Sebas as someone who drifts through life, not unhappy but neither operating at his full potential. Opposite him, Rivas and Huaripata deliver solid work as the women who are destabilizing forces in a good way, even though Sebas is initially unable to recognize this.

Technically, the film is as modest as its narrative.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (World Dramatic Competition)
Production companies: Tarea Fina, Memento Films
Cast: Esteban Lamothe, Erica Rivas, Yosiria Huaripata, Sergio Boris, Arturo Goetz, Maria Onetto, Luis Ziembrowski, German De Silva, Nahuel Mutti, Claudia Cantero
Writer-Director: Natalia Smirnoff
Producer: Juan Pablo Miller
Director of photography: Bill Nieto
Production designer: Maria Eugenia Sueiro
Music: Alejandro Franov
Costume designer: Julio Suarez
Sales: Memento Films
No rating, 75 minutes.