‘Oliver’s Deal’ (‘La Deuda’): Malaga Review

Courtesy of Dreamcatchers
Well-intentioned and ambitious, but full of scripting flaws

Corporate America’s greed impacts the Peruvian poor in Barney Elliot’s conscience-stirring debut starring Stephen Dorff

The connections between high finance and rural poverty are made forcibly but unsubtly in Oliver’s Deal, a moral drama about corporate greed that occasionally delivers real punch but which generally plays out too quietly and schematically. Part of the reason for this may be that, according to the filmmakers, the Deal which screened at the Malaga Film Festival is an early version, cut for the Spanish market: it has been substantially re-edited since.

While many co-productions can feel contrived, this slow-burning drama about a young banker’s first brush with the nasty consequences of his actions does not. Indeed, a co-production platform feels exactly right for the story which Oliver tells. But in trying to tell three stories where two would have done, the film sacrifices drive and focus. It’s a shame that such a well-grounded and well-intentioned project fails, over its last half-hour, to do justice to the complex and fascinating issues it’s raised, as well as losing its dramatic grip. Barney Elliott’s feature debut picked up scripting and best supporting actress awards at Spain’s recent Malaga festival. Further fest bookings should follow for a film which can be defined as mainstream cinema with an indie/alternative message.

Onscreen information sets up expectations of a slice of Ken Loach social realism as it describes how Peru's 1968 land reforms left the government in debt to to former landowners, a debt which is still far from being repaid. Foreign hedge funds are seeking to exploit the debt by buying cheap land from landowners tired of waiting for repayment: meanwhile, as the government prepares to pay the foreign banks, basic health services in Peru are coming under pressure.

One of the bankers is slick Oliver (Stephen Dorff), assisted by Ricardo (Spanish actor Alberto Ammann, best-known to foreign audiences for Cell 211), a Peruvian uneasily caught between personal ambition and concern for his nation’s sufferings. Their plans to buy up worthless government bonds from landowners are being frustrated on the one hand by Fiorentino (Amiel Cayo), a stubborn mountain farmer, and on the other by Caravedo (Carlos Bardem), a wealthy local who has other plans for exploiting the region. In what feels like a scripting afterthought, Oliver is in a relationship with Kate (Brooke Langton), nonchalantly treated by both our hero and the script.)

The second plotline is set high up in the Andes where the clear skies are blue and immense, where D.P. Bjorn Stale Bratberg has a field day, and over which a helicopter threateningly flies, involves Fiorentino’s young son Diego (Marco Antonio Ramirez), a free spirit kept firmly under his patriarchal father’s thumb. And the third story is set amongst the urban chaos and grime of Lima, where Maria (Elsa Olivero) is fighting to keep her ailing mother Gloria (Delfina Paredes) alive but, because of Oliver and his ilk, can’t get an operation for her .

Thematically, Maria’s story fits in perfectly - what better way could there be to show that global corporate finance is strangling public services in Lima -- and probably everywhere else as well -- whilst also turning good people like Maria into bad people? Valid and interesting points are being made about corporate finance’s millions of global victims. But dramatically, the fit isn’t as good, and every time we go there, there’s the feeling that the plot is pausing for a moment so that Elliot can lecturing our conscience about something his film has already taught us.

It doesn’t help either that over the final twenty minutes the coincidences start to pile up a little too conveniently, as the plot-points becomes increasingly fuzzy. The final line of dialogue is authentically groan-provoking, within two seconds undoing much of the good work that’s come before. The best script award which Deal received at Malaga was presumably for its political ambition, its thoroughly laudable desire to use mainstream cinema to make a difference, than for its achievement.

Performances are fine, given the limitations of the script in rounding out the characters. Peruvian actress Olivero took Best Supporting Actress in Malaga for her role as an embattled but dignified victim who is in the end obliged to sacrifice her dignity. It's a tough call, embodying in your person the whole injustice of western capitalism, but Olivero is up to the job as well as creating a Maria who's the film’s only character of substance. Everyone else is basically single-note apart from Dorff’s Oliver, whose redemptive turnaround, when it inevitably comes, is a little too sudden and unsignaled, and hence none-too credible. 

Production company: Atlantic Pictures, Arcadia Motion Pictures, Viracocha Films, Chullachaki Producciones
Cast: Stephen Dorff, Alberto Ammann, Elsa Olivero, Amiel Cayo, Carlos Bardem, David Strathairn, Marco Antonio Ramirez, Brooke Langton, Delfina Paredes
Director, screenwriter: Barney Elliott
Producers: Ibon Cormenzana, Ignasi Estape, Darren Goldberg, Chris Marsh
Executive producers: Richard & Kathleen Perkal, Louis & Amie Kreisberg, Christine Vachon, Stephen Dorff, Marina Fuentes, Ángel Durandez
Director of photography: Bjorn Stale Bratberg
Production designer: Guille Isa
Costume designer: Leslie Hinojosa, Kama Royz
Editor: J.L. Romeu
Composer: Jesus Diaz, Fletcher Ventura
Sales: Dreamcatchers International Sales

No rating, 110 min