Mount Bayo -- Film Review

Amiably bittersweet, family-centered comedy-drama set in an Andean ski resort.

SAN SEBASTIAN -- Essentially a high-class, big-screen version of a soapy telenovelaseries so enduringly popular all over Latin America, "Mount Bayo" loosely transplants Robert Altman's 1999 "Cookie's Fortune" to small-town Argentina where all the residents know each other's business.

The presence of some familiar faces including Babel Oscar-nominee Adriana Barraza will help with festival exposure and at box offices in Spanish-language territories. With suitable handling there's no reason why this accessible, quietly competent debut solo feature from writer-director Victoria Galardi shouldn't click with older ticket-buyers.

Mount Bayo (Cerro Bayo) quickly introduces us to its group of interconnected characters, all living and working in the resort of Villa La Angostura, a real place within the shadow of the eponymous mountain that is noted for its European-style wooden architecture.

When elderly widow Juana (Adela Gleijer) tries to commit suicide, she's left hospitalized and comatose. Her middle-aged daughter Marta (Barraza) summons sister Mercedes (Veronica Llinas) from distant Buenos Aires. The pair bicker over the best course of action to take regarding their mother's estate, a situation complicated by rumors that Juana had recently bought a winning lottery ticket.

The story's resemblances to the Altman movie are too strong to be sheer coincidence -- Gleijer even looks like the late Patricia Neal, who played the equivalent role in the earlier picture. The main focus is again on comically mismatched sisters, with Barazza the long-suffering 'sensible one' and Llinas a consistent delight as the cash-strapped, chaotic Mercedes, who has to use a public pay phone to make calls, not being able to keep up payments on a cell.

The fact that Llinas (who's Argentinian) doesn't much resemble Barraza (who's Mexican) isn't a problem, so neatly does Galardi capture the petty rivalries and jealousies that so often mark relationships between sisters especially those who have grown apart geographically and socially over the years. Representing the younger generations, the ever-busy Ines Efron and Nahuel Perez Biscayart again confirm their genial likeability in a movie whose strength is its organic, slightly sprawling ensemble as it traces the volatile dynamics of family groups.

Galardi's scriptwriting and directing contributions -- she wrote and co-directed 2008's Lovely Loneliness -- are generally unobtrusive, her mainstream-friendly manner evoking the particular atmospherics her well-chosen, unusual location. Julian Ledesma's cinematography, meanwhile, nicely captures the bleak, bluish-tinged beauty of dusty ski-country in the last few days before the arrival of snow.

Venue: San Sebastian International Film Festival
Production companies: Gale Cine; MyS Prodn.
Cast: Adriana Barraza, Ines Efron, Veronica Llinas, Nahuel Perez Biscayart, Guillermo Arengo
Director/screenwriter: Victoria Galardi
Producer: Milagros Roque Pitt
Director of photography: Julian Ledesma
Production designer: Patricia Pernia
Costume designers: Luzmila Fincic, Moises Toibal
Editor: Alejandro Brodersohn
Sales: Gale Cine
No rating, 86 minutes