'The Omission' ('La omision'): Film Review | Berlin 2018

A flinty miniature of hard-knock empathy.

Sofia Brito stars in Argentinian writer-director-editor Sebastian Schjaer's debut feature, premiering in the Panorama section of the Berlinale.

The reliable flow of promising debuts from Argentina continues with writer-director-editor Sebastian Schjaer's chilly The Omission (La omision). Set in the inhospitable southern reaches of Patagonia, it's a claustrophobic character study of a cash-strapped, resourceful young woman which works best as a showcase for lead Sofia Brito's offbeat charisma. Premiering in Berlinale's Panorama section, this co-production with the Netherlands and Switzerland is sufficiently distinctive to grace further festivals over the coming months.

Schjaer doesn't lack eminent connections, having previously edited Gael Garcia Bernal's short The Invisible Hand (2015) and two literary adaptations by Schjaer's critically adored countryman Matias Pineiro, The Princess of France (2014) and Hermia & Helena (2016). Schjaer brought The Princess of France in at a super-lean 67 minutes, and while his cut of The Omission runs conventional feature length (credits roll at the 86-minute mark), there's a definite sense of narrative being trimmed right down to the bone. The results can be sometimes a little mystifying, but never unengaging.

The editorial policy of stringent economy is also in keeping with the hardscrabble layer of working-class lives depicted in the film. These are people who exist on a hand-to-mouth basis, who must routinely travel long distances, who must count every penny. Paula (Brito), in her early twenties, has relocated to Ushuaia — the most southerly city in the world — where she works in hotels catering to the tourist trade.

This part of Tierra del Fuego is, as a character remarks early on, a place of "incredible natural beauty," and anyone who has kept an eye on Argentinian independent cinema in the current century will be very familiar with its spectacular, windswept, rugged terrain. But Schjaer's take is radically different from that of his many peers who have filmed in and around the city over recent years, as Ines Duacastella's cinematography only includes brief glimpses of the natural vistas (hence the "omission" of the enigmatic title?). The mood is somber and even oppressive, heightened by the moody electronic stylizations of Manuel Gonzalez Aguilar's sparingly deployed score.

The focus is very much on people — usually captured by searchingly intense close-ups — who simply don't have the time to gaze at nice scenery. Paula is hardly ever off-camera as she struggles to look after her young daughter Malena (Malena Hernandez Diaz) with the assistance of her mother (Laura Lopez Moyano, convincingly careworn). Paula plans to emigrate to Canada with Malena's father Diego (Pablo Sigal), but must also handle the amorous attentions of besotted co-worker Manuel (Lisandro Rodriguez), an artistically minded part-time photographer and Andrei Tarkovsky fan. 

When Manuel eventually makes a move, Paula's response is jarringly businesslike: "if we're going to be together, I will have to charge you." Resembling a combination of Carey Mulligan, Sandra Huller and Michelle Williams, Brito — next to be seen prominently in a feature-length documentary by American avant-garde legend James Benning — keeps Paula flintily sympathetic throughout. She etches a subtle and believable portrait of an astute person experienced far beyond her tender years, and considerably tougher than her gamine looks suggest.

Production companies: Trapecio Cine (with Tarea Fina, Tronco, Volya Films, Bord Cadre Films)
Cast: Sofía Brito, Lisandro Rodriguez, Malena Hernandez Díaz, Victoria Raposo, Pablo Sigal, Laura Lopez Moyano
Director-screenwriter-editor: Sebastian Schjaer
Producer: Melanie Schapiro
Executive producers: Melanie Schapiro, Juan Pablo Miller
Cinematographer: Ines Duacastella
Production designer: Fabiana Gallegos
Composer: Manuel Gonzalez Aguilar
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Panorama)
Sales: Patra Spanou Film Marketing & Consulting, Dusseldorf, Germany (film@patraspanou.biz)

In Spanish
91 minutes