‘My Own Place’ (‘Casa Propia’): Film Review

Courtesy of El Carro
A deceptively simple contempo tale.

Argentinian Rosendo Ruiz’s latest is a perceptive character study of an Argentinian 40-year-old who isn’t being allowed to grow up.

“The day you were born, there was a downpour,” the mother of My Own Place’s protagonist tells him, and it seems that even at 40, poor Ale still hasn’t quite shaken off the last of the rain. Rosendo Ruiz’s seventh feature, which garnered plenty of positive buzz at Argentina’s recent BAFICI fest, is a small, nicely observed X-ray of a man entering early middle age who’s trying to make sense of social forces beyond his control that he doesn’t fully understand.

It’s a simply told story with deceptively complex undercurrents, and — in taking on the life of a 40-year-old who still lives with his mother — it speaks for a generation resigned to living in a world from which all the old maturity milestones have been erased.

Based in Cordoba rather than in Buenos Aires, Ruiz is still remembered primarily for his 2010 debut Clubbing, which brought the nightlife of his city into enthralling focus. My Own Place breaks the mold of Ruiz’s work by focusing on an individual character more thoroughly than any of his previous work.

The opening scene, the only one in which the protagonist isn’t center stage, shows a group of Cordoba street kids looking on with amusement as our hero gets to his girlfriend’s house, is reluctantly admitted and is then thrown out again a couple of minutes later. It’s a pathetic little scene, and in a sense the rest of the film is an exploration of what lies behind it.

Ale (played by Ruiz’s co-scripter Gustavo Almada) is a literature teacher locked into a mutually dissatisfying, on/off relationship with single mother Vero (Maura Sajeva). He lives with his embittered mother Marta (Irene Gonet), who has cancer; his sister (Yohana Pereyra) has a family of her own to raise and doesn’t seem too interested in picking up her share of the workload. Frustratingly for Ale, the literary ambitions of his best friend Manu are closer to being realized than his own, and to add insult to injury, Manu has sold a story copied from something Ale wrote. Ale is also searching for a place of his own to live, and, in a symbolic nod to his search for a place in the world, he’s shown several apartments but without ever managing to choose one.

Recounted without frills and in a downbeat manner reflecting the attitude of Ale to his own experiences, the film features a simmering tension that seems to be building up to some kind of explosion, and this duly arrives with about 15 minutes to go. The tension comes in the form of Ale’s growing awareness, never explicitly stated but nonetheless there, that his fate is effectively in the hands of others, whether it's Vero, who refuses to tell her little boy about their relationship, or his mother, with whom he is locked into an unhealthily manipulative relationship.

Ale is not merely a victim, and is capable of some pretty appalling behavior himself. For example, later on, when his mother’s cancer goes into remission and she wants to go home, he makes it clear to her that she should stay in the care home where she is. He’s happy, also, to sleep around with co-workers and use prostitutes and is unable to commit to Vero. But, the crucially nonjudgmental script suggests, the true targets are the social and economic forces at work in keeping a regular guy from fulfilling his potential: Given a life like Ale’s, it seems to say, who wouldn’t want to have a little fun and sleep around?

If all of this sounds preachy and humorless, it’s neither. There are constant flashes of dry Cordoban wit, and the viewer spends enough time with Ale to come to understand his nuances and shades, so that his behavior, which might be easy to condemn in a less well-drawn character, is at least always understandable. This is down to generous, thoughtful performances. Almada, so memorable as the aggressive but pathetic outsider Laucha in Clubbing, is quiet but intense, keeping the viewer fully aware of the way Alejandro is torn between the different roles society is expecting him to play, though without giving him the tools to do so successfully. Those around the actor, particularly Gonet and Sajeva, are up to the mark.

The stripped-back camera work of Pablo Gonzalez Galetto is in line with the film’s generally downbeat aesthetic, often choosing still shots and tight, lingering close-up. The only concessions to self-conscious style come in the lush, grandiose orchestral score that sometimes kicks in, a kind of ironic commentary on the action.

Production companies: El Carro
Cast: Gustavo Almada, Irene Gonet, Maura Sajeva, Mauro Alegret, Yohana Pereyra
Director: Rosendo Ruiz
Screenwriters: Rosendo Ruiz, Gustavo Almada
Executive producer: Ines Moyano
Director of photography: Pablo Gonzalez Galetto
Art directors: Carolina Bravo, Julia Pesce
Costume designer: Isabel Riberi
Editors: Rosendo Ruiz, Ramiro Sonzini
Composer: Alejandro di Rienzo
Sales: El Carro

83 minutes