'The Open Door' ('La Puerta Abierta'): Film Review

Courtesy of Meridional Producciones
Tough, tender and flawed.

This downbeat social redemption drama took the best screenplay prize at the Guadalajara fest.

The heart of an embittered middle-aged prostitute opens up just enough to let in a glimmer of redemption in Argentinian Marina Seresesky’s debut feature The Open Door, an admirably abrasive by-women-for-women drama that works just fine until it starts to pull its punches later on. Featuring an entirely convincing Carmen Machi playing memorably against type, an appealingly gritty earnestness of approach and plenty of compassion, the film is the very definition of well-intentioned but flawed fare, but by the time the cracks start to appear it has already made its emotional impact. Following its Guadalajara award, The Open Door is finding a regular welcome on the festival circuit.

Things unspool over the festive period, making this a strong candidate for most miserabilist Christmas movie of all time. Sex worker Rosa (Machi) lives with her Alzheimer-suffering mother Antonia (the formidable Terele Pavez, best known to foreign audiences for her work with Alex de la Iglesia), also formerly a sex worker, in a tiny apartment in a run-down area in central Madrid, where the neighbors include nosey Juana (Sonia Almarcha), embittered for different reasons, transvestite sex worker Lupita (Asier Etxeandia), and a Russian prostitute, Masha (Monika Kowalska). Masha overdoses early on, leaving her 7-year-old daughter Lyuba (Lucia Balas), wise beyond her years, to wander into Rosa’s home, seeking refuge. It is all very gloomy.

Reluctantly Rosa takes Lyuba in for a few days, during which time Antonia develops a bond with the girl. The police come sniffing round, but everyone agrees that handing her over would be the worst thing for her, and it’s here, in the climate of total mistrust between the authorities and the marginalized, that the film makes its most powerful social points.

A little girl entering the lives of a household of hookers is, of course, a recipe for sentimentality, but The Open Door carefully sidesteps it. The shockingly foul-mouthed, slanging matches that take place across the clotheslines which criss-cross the house’s central patio, the dirty browns and yellows of DP Roberto Fernandez’s visual palates, and the grimness of both the apartments and the streets where Rosa works (the sex workers are often shot docu-style, from the middle distance) all feel unhappily authentic.

But there’s no getting around the fact that Pavez, though magnificently watchable, is unconvincing in a role that was originally earmarked for Amparo Baro, who died while she was preparing the role. There’s a theatricality and knowingness, a lack of frailty, about Pavez’s performance that makes it hard to believe that she’s suffering from a disease that has left her believing that she’s actually the Spanish actress and singer Sara Montiel, whose music opens the film.

The dynamic between mother and daughter, though, is well done, the pair of them locked into a relationship of mutual resentment and need, leavened by occasional flashes of hard-nosed humor. Rosa, with her permanently-poised cigarette and who never once smiles, is credibly hard, embittered and twisted (‘a bitter whore works less,’ Antonia admonishes her) and whatever tenderness there may be inside her remains out of sight even during a powerful scene when Lyuba is singing her a Russian lullaby — a scene in which Rosa appears to become tragically aware of her own spiritual deadness. It’s a memorable performance from Machi, based on observation and experience rather than on the filmically expedient.

Etxeandia is likewise strong as the theatrical, foul-mouthed transvestite who seems to have wandered in from an early Almodovar movie, but a plotline involving a pistol brings her story to a frankly overcooked, nonsensical ending. Indeed, during the over-hasty last 15 minutes a couple of implausibilities are allowed to creep in, undermining the project. Given what we’re told about her life, it’s hard to imagine that Rosa would own a car, much less ever have learned to drive it.

Space is found for a couple of effective moments of street poetry, one accompanied by a haunting version of "Silent Night" as Rosa plies her lonely nighttime trade.

Production companies: Meridional Producciones, Chester Media Producciones, Stop & Play, Babilonia Film, Milciclos
Cast: Carmen Machi, Terele Pavez, Asier Etxeandia, Lucia Balas, Paco Tous, Sonia Almarcha
Director, screenwriter: Marina Seresesky
Producer: Alvaro Lavin
Director of photography: Roberto Fernandez
Production designer: Javier Crespo
Costume designer: Pan Alvaro
Editor: Raul de Torres
Composer: Mariano Marin
Sales: Meridional Producciones

No rating, 84 minutes