Paradise (Paraiso): San Sebastian Review

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The by-the-numbers treatment saps most of the complexity and interest from this well-intentioned film's intriguing premise.

Mexican Mariana Chenillo's follow-up to the well-received "Nora's Will" tackles the emotional struggles of an overweight couple trying to start a new life.

Fat is a film-maker's issue in the ironically-named Paradise, a disappointingly soft-centered comedy drama about body fascism, which is awkwardly straddled on the borderline between social crit and soap opera. Directed by Mariana Chenillo, who made the internationally acclaimed Nora's Will, this occasionally affecting film teems with interesting ideas, but its thoroughly mainstream treatment and lack of nuance mean that mostly they fail to come to life. Latin American audiences may react well to Paradise's flawed attempt to strike a blow for women in the fight to own their own bodies, but other territories are unlikely to bite.

Overweight couple Carmen (Daniela Rincon, debuting) and gentle, caring Alfredo (Mexican TV star and singer Andres Almeida) live in the outskirts of Mexico City. Initially they seem happy enough with both their bodies and their lives, but Alfredo's job means they are relocated to the center. At an event held by his new company, Carmen overhears a bitchy conversation between two woman who compare her to a Botero painting and wonder how on earth such a fat person is able to have sex.

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Lacking the inner resources to deal with such metropolitan cruelty, the formerly carefree Carmen becomes suddenly insecure and signs up with Alfredo to a dieting class. Alfredo is considerably more successful at losing weight than Carmen, and with the loss of forty pounds he discovers a new man within and finds the confidence to start a flirtation with a coworker (Camila Selser). Perhaps inevitably, given the generally schematic nature of the script, as Carmen and Alfredo drift apart, she befriends a group of women in a cookery class.

Hidden somewhere inside all this, there is an interesting story about how, when social attitudes to beauty creep insidiously into a relationship, it's inevitably the woman who suffers most. Indeed, Carmen's world falls apart. But Chenillo has chosen to overload the recipe with saccharine, so that the viewer’s purchase on any real engagement with her plight is quickly lost. Alfredo's flirtation starts with him saving a kitten, and there is schmaltzy music to accompany Carmen's separation from her pet dog at the start. Indeed, music pretty much always on hand to jolt the viewer into feeling the appropriate emotion.

Despite Rincon's able, watchable performance, Carmen is a misconceived heroine. Frustratingly passive, she never threatens to fight for the idea that she happens to like eating lots of food and is comfortable that way. Indeed, she learns very little from the experience - and although Chenillo's point may be precisely that Carmen's sheltered suburban life has not prepared her for such learning, her lack of forward motion as a character doesn't make for great drama. Both Carmen and the script seem to agree that without Alfredo, she can be nobody - a soap-ish view that may have been tailored to the mainstream viewer but which makes her inner life flat and uninteresting.

The film proceeds from scene to scene as ponderously and carefully as its protagonists, but also manages, at several key points, to be both deja vu and implausible; without some new angle, the excesses of consumer society are a pretty threadbare target for the film's uncertain satire. A nicely convincing sense of quiet intimacy between the central couple, revealed in odd moments of real tenderness ("but we always forgive each other", murmurs a baffled Carmen), along with moments of appealingly understated humor, are not enough to redeem the project.

Production: Canana
Cast: Andres Alameida, Daniela Rincon, Camila Selser, Beatriz Moreno, Jose Sefami.
Director, screenwriter: Mariana Chenillo, based on a story by Julieta Arevalo Contreras
Producer: Pablo Cruz
Executive producers: Gael García Bernal, Julian Levin, Diego Luna, Vanessa Perez, Arturo Sampson
Director of photography: Yaron Orbach
Production designer: Hania Robledo
Editor: Chenillo
Sound: Frank Gaeta
Sales: Mundial
No rating, 105 minutes