Vanishing Landscapes (Paisajes Devorados): Montreal Review

Character study of a mental patient claiming to have been a filmmaker overflows with inspiring and amusing bon mots.

Argentine writer-director Eliseo Subiela's drama stars Fernando Birri as a mental patient who claims to have been a successful director.

MONTREAL — A small but enchanting work celebrating the idiosyncrasy of artists, and moviemakers specifically, Eliseo Subiela's Vanishing Landscapes invents a madman who claims to be a filmmaker -- or is he a forgotten auteur playing at being insane? It would almost be insulting to the film to claim it isn't marginal -- its heart is with outcasts and hermits -- but it's marginal in a way that makes it perfect for cinephiles seeking a reminder of why they go to the arthouse.

Fernando Birri, an elder statesman of Latin American cinema, plays Remoro Barroso, a hospitalized mental patient who says he was once a successful director. Three earnest film students have come to meet him, hoping to make a documentary about his claims; their project uncovers a mystery when it emerges that Barroso may actually be a different man, a temperamental director accused of murdering his girlfriend decades ago. (Birri himself has been directing since the Fifties, making talk of Barroso's career intriguingly meta.)

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That lingering question gives the film enough semblance of a plot to satisfy those expecting a conventional film. (And the specifics of the investigation offer a sideways, melancholy tribute to forgotten Argentine cinema.) But all Vanishing Landscapes and its young protagonists (and most viewers) care about is spending time with this beguiling man, whose long white beard and gloriously age-defiled face, framed by a floppy black hat and coat, make him the picture of ancient wisdom.

Initially, he offers his new students technical tips that, while bizarre, sound brilliant upon reflection: A director should never stage a traveling shot that completely circles his actors, or they will be trapped inside that circle and the rest of the film will be soulless. Growing more comfortable with them, he moves on to general observations about life: He claims only to feel alive when his ass itches, because of the pleasure that scratching gives.

Barroso will function as an inspiration for his companions, but this picture isn't even distantly related to a Dead Poets Society-style Great Teacher picture. Barroso, who laments that he "never filmed for love" and was always trying to make a commercially successful movie, is too wily in his old age to play by anyone else's rules.

Production Company: Orgon Films

Cast: Fernando Birri, María Luz Subiela, Juan Manuel Lopez Baio, Juan Marcelo Rodrigo Martinez, Araceli Sangronis

Director-Screenwriter: Eliseo Subiela

Director of photography: Sebastián Gallo

Music: Osvaldo Montes, Popi Spatocco

Editor: Marcela Sáenz

No rating, 73 minutes