The Owners: Cannes Review

The Owners Cannes Still - H 2013
Class differences and desire are explored in effective, understated fashion in this promising first film.

The quietly unnerving debut of Argentinean filmmakers Agustín Toscano and Ezequiel Radusky premiered in the Cannes Critics’ Week section.

The grass is always greener on the other side in The Owners, the feature debut of thespians and playwrights-turned-filmmakers Agustín Toscano and Ezequiel Radusky that’s set on an Argentinean farming estate in the northern province of Tucumán. The film unfolds almost entirely on the large domain, where the workers secretly enjoy the comforts of their absent employers’ mansion, only to have to scuttle and revert back to serfdom the second their bosses fly in from Buenos Aires. In a pleasing symmetry that’s thankfully never pushed too far, the titular owners also desire things they don’t have -- such as an employment that gives their life focus and meaning -- turning the film into a bleakly comic exploration of how intemperance exists across class divides.

The writer-directors’ deliberate pace allows for careful observation, while their meticulously choreographed mise-en-scene and expressive palette of chiaroscuro lighting further help suggest there are fewer differences than similarities between the upper and lower classes depicted here, with members of each group repeatedly finding themselves in the position of the other. Though not funny or pointed enough to make major inroads into non-Hispanophone territories, this subdued but perceptive first feature certainly marks its young makers as names to watch.   

The unexpected arrival of Pia (Rosario Bléfari, A Mysterious World), the sister of the more often present Lourdes (Cynthia Avellaneda), slowly turns things upside down on the estate, especially after Pia decides she wants to take over the daily running of the cattle farm, though she has no agricultural experience. The farm’s theoretically the territory of Gabriel (Daniel Elías), the hubby of Lourdes, though he puts up little resistance to his sister-in-law’s plans. Pia’s own other half (Nicolás Aráoz) is not much interested in his wife’s desires or what the fact that she wants to stay in Tucumán and actually work might say about the state of their relationship and lives.

Ruben (Germán De Silva, Las Acacias), the matronly Alicia (Liliana Juárez) and Alicia’s adult son, Sergio (Sergio Prina) are theoretically the farm’s caretakers. They squat in the main house, revel in relative luxury and neglect their farming duties whenever the family is in Buenos Aires, though their employers have a habit of coming back unannounced.

In their screenplay, Toscano and Radusky don’t spell out things too much, instead giving audiences the possibility to wander around in the largely observational scenes to allow them to draw their own conclusions. Repetitions of scenes and motifs — such as the caretakers’ repeated rush to leave the house only to move back in the second the owners leave — and the subsequent inversion of certain situations make it clear the filmmakers aren’t taking sides but are instead interested in simply exploring the back-and-forth, push-and-pull dynamics between the employers and employees from different sides.

A short but terrific exchange between Ruben and Alicia in the kitchen, after they’ve witnessed something they shouldn’t have seen and have, in turn, been seen in a place where they shouldn’t have been, neatly illustrates the writer-directors’ command of set-up, plot, economical dialogue and pay-off.

The cast, mainly comprised of little-known faces, adds authenticity to the proceedings with nicely lived-in performances, with Bléfari and Juárez especially noteworthy as two very different but equally conflicted women.

Sleek camera work by Gustavo Biazzi (A Mysterious World, The Student) often goes for a penumbral look full of half-shadows, especially indoors, which helps make the differences between the classes disappear since they can’t always be immediately identified, while also suggesting nothing is entirely black or white. Numerous shots of characters watching or spying others occur throughout, suggesting desire starts with the act of looking -- which in turn might explain why Toscano and Radusky thought this particular subject more suitable for a film rather a play.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Critics’ Week)
Production company: Rizoma
Cast: Rosario Bléfari, Germán De Silva, Sergio Prina, Cynthia Avellaneda, Liliana Juárez, Daniel Elías, Nicolás Aráoz
Writer-directors: Agustín Toscano, Ezequiel Radusky
Producers: Natacha Cervi & Hernán Musaluppi
Executive producer: Pablo Chernov
Director of photography: Gustavo Biazzi
Production and costume designer: Gonzalo Delgado Galiana
Editor: Pablo Barbieri
Sales: The Match Factory
No rating, 92 minutes