Natural Sciences (Ciencias naturales): Berlin Review

Berlin Film Festival
An inscrutable protagonist and some heavy-handed symbolism make for uneasy bedfellows.

Argentinian director Matias Lucchesi's feature debut, a Generation Kplus Grand Prix winner in Berlin, stars Paula Hertzog and Paola Barrientos.

BERLIN -- A brooding but determined schoolgirl from rural Argentina decides it’s finally time to meet the father she never knew in Natural Sciences (Ciencias naturales), the feature directorial debut of Matias Lucchesi.

Though the film, which won the Generation Kplus Grand Prix at the recent Berlin Film Festival, is about potentially the biggest moment yet in the life of the 12-year-old protagonist, the tone of Natural Sciences is one of low-key understatement throughout. Even the backdrop of the majestic, sparsely populated Sierras de Cordoba Mountains can’t quite imbue this very personal and unspectacular tale with something akin to grandeur.

After its Berlinale premiere, the film will be welcomed at other festivals, though commercial play in theaters beyond the Hispanosphere will be about as slight as the film itself.

STORY: Argentine Feature 'Natural Sciences' Wins Generation Kplus

Paula Hertzog, the lead from Paula Markovitch’s 2011 Berlin competition title The Prize, plays Lila, a taciturn girl who goes to a small school that is not only literally in the center of Argentina but also in the middle of nowhere -- though it has breathtaking views that cinematographer Sebastian Ferrero captures in casual, offhanded shots that suggest the spectacular surroundings have long ago stopped impressing the locals.

Unhindered by practicalities such as the fact it’s the depth of winter, Lila one day decides to escape from school on horseback to start looking for her father, a man about whom she knows almost nothing, not even his name. After several failed attempts to leave school unnoticed, including in a staff car even though she clearly can’t drive, Jimena (Paola Barrientos, adequate), an exceptionally understanding educator in the kind movie-teacher mold, promises to help the stubborn little lady follow her only lead and drives her to the place where Lila’s father used to work.

Lucchesi, who wrote the screenplay with Gonzalo Salaya, is clearly not a fan of over-explaining and prefers to keep the action entirely grounded in the present, which would be fine if the characters were more easily readable. But the reasons behind the sudden urge of the protagonist to find out about her father remain unmentioned and they would have helped to illuminate Lila’s clearly single-minded but also quite inscrutable and not very forthcoming character.

A few more sequences like the short scene in which Lila manages to convince Jimena, who’s expected back at school with her charge, to instead drive her to a town over 200 miles away to help her find her dad, would have helped make Lila a more accessible (if not necessarily more likeable) character. But given so little to work with, young Hertzog struggles to turn Lila into a protagonist that audiences will want to follow anywhere.

The few odd people Lila and Jimena encounter on their hunt aren’t all that interesting either, basically suggesting Argentinean men have a habit of sleeping around and then not caring in the slightest about the resulting responsibilities, though the impact this apparently ingrained has on women like Jimena and, possibly, Lila in the future remains uncharted territory. Only actor Sergio Boris (The Motorcycle Diaries), who plays a welder, manages to suggest that his meeting with the youngster has in some way impacted his life, though how and why remains mostly off-screen here, too.

There are a couple of clunky attempts to shoehorn some metaphors into the film, starting with the title, which refers to a biology class at school, during which the kids are studying how seeds develop into full-grown organisms. There’s also a clumsily inserted bit, toward the end, where a weather vane, which points out the direction of the origin of the wind, is clearly meant to represent more than just an artful roof decoration. But because the rest of the film offers so little insight into the characters, these symbols feel more heavy-handed than they should be.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Generation Kplus)

Production companies: Salta la Liebre, Tarea Fina, Metaluna Productions
Cast: Paula Hertzog, Paola Barrientos, Alvin Astorga, Arturo Goetz, Sergio Boris, Vanesa Wainber, Eugenia Alonso
Director: Matias Lucchesi
Screenwriters: Matias Lucchesi, Gonzalo Salaya
Producer: Matias Lucchesi
Executive producers: Matias Lucchesi, Juan Pablo Miller
Director of photography: Sebastian Ferrero
Production designers: Matias Lucchesi, Adrian Suarez
Music: Nacho Conde
Costume designer: Sol Munoz
Editor: Delfina Castagnino

Sales: Urban Distribution
No rating, 71 minutes.