'Paulina': Cannes Review

A challenging and complex take on a subject more often dealt with in stark black and white

Argentinean director Santiago Mitre's ruminative drama centers on a socially conscious teacher whose response to being sexually assaulted defies easy understanding.

Santiago Mitre's contemporary remake of the 1960 Argentinean classic La Patota contemplates the aftershock of sexual assault with a psychological complexity that extends beyond the victim to her family and friends, to the perpetrators and bystanders, and even to the justice system itself. Driven by a powerfully internalized performance from Dolores Fonzi as the title character, Paulina eschews straightforward answers in favor of questioning observation. While some might find its subtle intensity distancing in relation to the brutality of the plot's central event, the film is an affecting consideration of how one woman weighs the experience of rape against her social convictions.

The somber approach to already grim material will limit audiences, but Paulina nonetheless marks a mature second feature for Mitre, a frequent screenwriting collaborator of Pablo Trapero who made a well-received move into directing with The Student. A taut dialectical drama that examined Argentina’s slippery political machinations through a university student election, the 2011 film adopted a dispassionate style akin to documentary. Mitre's new film shares a similar detachment, even as cinematographer Gustavo Biazzi's probing camera scrutinizes every thought that passes across the protagonist's face — many of them unreadable.

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Paulina is introduced arguing with her father, Fernando (veteran actor Oscar Martinez, last seen in Wild Tales), a liberal judge. He strongly disagrees with his daughter's decision to abandon her Ph.D. and promising law career in order to teach politics in a pioneering education program in the rural slums of the Northeast. But her impassioned stance convinces him that hers is a serious commitment and not some idealistic hippie fantasy.

The job takes her back to near where she grew up, in the border country joining Argentina to Paraguay and Brazil, a marginalized area whose forests have been violated by the lumber industry. While still struggling to overcome the indifference of her students toward lessons on the principals of democracy, Paulina unwinds after work with friendly colleague Laura (Laura Lopez Moyano) over a couple of bottles of wine. But as she's riding home at night on a moped, she’s pulled off the lonely road and attacked by a group of five youths.

While Mitre foreshadows the incident in an unsettling shot as Paulina is being driven to the school for the first time, the director makes the intriguing choice to show the crime initially from far away, discernible only by the victim's alarmed cries. But the film then jumps back in the first of several time shifts to show the events that led to the assault, focusing on the oldest member of the gang, brooding sawmill worker Ciro (Cristian Salguero). The only one of them not in Paulina's class, Ciro is smarting from the humiliation of being dumped after a few dates by a single mother for whom he cares.

Creating a methodical structure that looks at the motivations and responses of everyone involved, editors Delfina Castagnino, Leandro Aste and Joana Collier shuffle scenes to show Paulina being interviewed by medical professionals, rape counselors and police. We also see Fernando's attempts to be supportive despite his concerns about her returning to work, and the struggle of her longtime boyfriend Alberto (Esteban Lamothe, the lead from The Student) to accept Paulina's decision not to press charges after she tells him that she can identify the perpetrators.

Fonzi is riveting in a demanding role in which her character shows little visible emotion even in the most traumatic circumstances, her feelings remaining frequently inscrutable. By forcing us to ask the same questions that Fernando, Alberto, Laura and even Paulina herself are asking, Mitre and co-writer Mariano Llinas open a fascinating window on the conflicts of ideology tested by violent experience. That gray zone is pushed even further when the attack is revealed to have long-range physical consequences, and when Fernando goes against his daughter's wishes to seek justice.

The succession of confrontations here makes for absorbing drama that studiously avoids the familiar indignation or consolation of such stories. And even if Mitre withholds any conventional payoff, a terrific concluding scene between Fonzi and Martinez, in which Fernando releases his agonized frustration as Paulina finally acknowledges the depths of her pain, is shattering. This is a tough film, easier to admire than fully embrace, but its seriousness of purpose and disdain for banal melodrama make it quite arresting.

Cast: Dolores Fonzi, Cristian Salguero, Esteban Lamothe, Oscar Martinez, Veronica Llinas, Laura Lopez Moyano, Ezequiel Diaz, Andrea Quattrocchi, Silvina Savater
Production companies: La Union de los Rios, Lita Stantic Productions, Full House, VideoFilmes, StoryLab
Director: Santiago Mitre
Screenwriters: Santiago Mitre, Mariano Llinas, based on the film ‘La Patota,’ written by Eduardo Borras, directed by Daniel Tinayre
Producers: Agustina Llambi Campbell, Fernando Brom, Santiago Mitre, Lita Stantic, Didar Domehri, Laurent Baudens, Gael Nouaille, Axel Kuschevatzky, Walter Salles, Ignacio Viale
Director of photography: Gustavo Biazzi
Production designer: Micaela Saiegh
Costume designers: Florencia Caligiuri, Carolina Sosa Loyola
Music: Nicolas Varchausky
Editors: Delfina Castagnino, Leandro Aste, Joana Collier
Casting director: Mariana Mitre
Sales: Versatile
No rating, 103 minutes.