'One in a Thousand' ('Las mil y una'): Film Review | Berlin 2020

Courtesy of Varsovia Films
Two hours of walking around the block.

Argentinean director Clarisa Navas' sophomore feature opened the Panorama program of this year's Berlinale.

A basketball-loving queer teen living in the projects in a nondescript town in northern Argentina ambles through life and her own movie in One in a Thousand (Las mil y una). This second feature from Clarisa Navas (Today, Match at 3) should be a welcome addition to the roster of LGBTQ festivals looking for films about and directed by women. But it has practically zero crossover appeal and aesthetically feels derivative, making it a curious choice as the opener of the Panorama section at this year’s Berlinale. 

The first thing that Iris (Sofia Cabrera) hears in the film is “You’re so pretty,” which is practically hurled at her by a boy from the barrio where she lives. Her reaction is very telling as she hides her face in her NBA-themed singlet and tries to get away from him as fast as she can. In a game of hide-and-seek played not much later, it is confirmed boys don’t seem to be much of a priority, as Iris declines a kiss from the young man who set up the game so he could get some alone time with her in a hiding place. Instead, Iris becomes distracted by a mysterious girl in hot pants she has seen around the block a few times.

This is Renata (Ana Carolina Garcia). With her messy mop of dark curls and funky sunglasses she looks like a teenage Helena Bonham Carter, ready for the red carpet on her own quirky terms. The forward Renata has come back to the projects after some time in Paraguay, where she lived with her 40-year-old female lover. Her return has caused a lot of rumors, such as the idea she might be HIV-positive.

What is perhaps most surprising about this whole setup, especially given the fact that the feature is two hours long, is how little drama there is. Renata is clearly interested in Iris. Iris seems to clearly like girls and coming out to those close to her seems like a nonissue, especially because her teenage cousins Dario (Mauricio Vila) and Ale (Luis Molina) are clearly already aware of her orientation, probably because neither of them seems to be very straight either. The boys’ mother doesn’t seem to care about her offsprings' sexuality as long as they don’t ask her any questions about anal sex. Iris’ own parents and her brother are mostly kept offscreen for reasons unknown, so it is hard to tell if they feel the same. But since they don't seem to care about the fact that Iris was thrown out of school, it's hard to imagine they would have problems with much else.

This creates a strange situation in which Iris lives in a largely queer-positive bubble that feels unlikely and very artificial. Even the specter of HIV and AIDS feels like a nonissue that can be solved through a few Google searches. What are the odds that three teen cousins are all of more or less the same age and all not straight, or at least questioning (no other cousins seem to be around)? Even the protagonist’s friends, such as the older Dulce (Amanda Victoria Cussigh), identify as queer and live their lives with their partners in relative openness, even if Dulce does suggest she moved out of the barrio to a better ‘hood. What are the odds that the cousins’ working-class — if that — families are all accepting in a place like Corrientes, Argentina, a place 10 hours north of Buenos Aires? Iris and Renata hide a few times from unwanted glances from strangers to make out but since Iris comes from such a protective bubble, this feels almost childish and more like a game than a necessity. 

The question thus becomes why audiences should spend two hours with characters who go about their daily business without any struggles or the potential for growth. Navas' intention seems to be to paint a lyrical portrait of a group of queer teens just being themselves. But the realistic backdrop, with its drug deals, prostitution and petty crime, makes this feel not only implausible, but also like dangerous wishful thinking that could get them into trouble (to be fair, there is a hint of that as the film finally draws to a close).

Many of the specifics of the characters are glanced over, so it's hard to identify with them or understand what the stakes are for them. For example, Renata's actual health status remains a mystery (she does have a nasty cough à la Nicole Kidman in Moulin Rouge) as does how exactly she makes money besides some pole dancing in a queer club. A film like Glue (2006) from Alexis Dos Santos (also a co-writer on the recent art house hit Monos) was much more successful at looking at the lazy lives of queer teens in rural Argentina, where nothing seems to happen and therefore everything could be tried out — and be at stake.

One in a Thousand’s lack of narrative focus and conflict results in a drawn-out, almost non-rhythm that at least mirrors the lazy summer days it depicts. The sense of time only very slowly creeping by is emphasized by the saturated aesthetic of cinematographer Armin Marchesini Weihmüller (a Today, Match at 3 alumnus), whose jerky handheld camerawork follows the characters in unbroken takes as they walk around the derelict projects as if this were a Dardenne brothers film from the mid-1990s. The camera follows every step they take but there is a sense that all the kids do is walk in circles around the same block — and not only literally.

Acting, from a cast of mostly nonprofessionals, is solid. If the characters feel like three-dimensional beings, it is more thanks to them than the screenplay or the mostly disengaged mise-en-scène.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Opener, Panorama)
Production companies: Varsovia Films, Autentika Films
Cast: Sofia Cabrera, Ana Carolina Garcia, Mauricio Vila, Luis Molina, Marianela Iglesia, Pilar Rebull Cubells, Amanda Victoria Cussigh, Leo Espindola, Facundo Ledesma 
Writer-director: Clarisa Navas
Producers: Diego Dubcobsky, Lucia Chavarri
Executive producer: Carolina Penelas 
Cinematography: Armin Marchesini Weihmüller 
Production design: Lucas Koziarski 
Costume design: Clarisa Leiva
Editing: Florencia Gomez Garcia
Music: Claudio Juarez, Desdel Barro
Sales: Pluto Film

In Spanish
No rating, 120 minutes