'The Projectionist' ('El Proyeccionista'): Film Review | Miami Film Festival 2019

Courtesy of Miami Film Festival
Reel to real.

Jose Maria Cabral’s film is a homage to the power of pre-digital cinema as seen through the lens of an old-style traveling cinema owner.

A winsome but troubling homage to one of the movie industry’s disappearing crafts, The Projectionist, Jose Maria Cabral’s follow-up to his very different Woodpeckers — the first Dominican film to screen at Sundance — takes its grumpily nostalgic titular hero on a twin journey through both the backwoods towns of the Dominican Republic and into his own past. Familiar though that may sound, Cabral pulls together various strands, including rural drama, road movie and noir, to create something distinctive and thoughtful that satisfyingly darkens and intensifies as things proceed. The universal appeal of films about films, combined with Cabral’s refusal to play it dramatically simple, suggest further fest projections.

Early scenes are taken at the pace of the ambling rural drama that by the end the film will startlingly have ceased to be. We first encounter middle-aged, struggling Eliseo (Felix German) as he’s repairing the truck he uses to travel around the rural pueblos of the Dominican Republic, projecting movies in theaterless towns and generally going about things in the time-honored manner — despite people’s suggestions, unthinkable to Eliseo, that he might consider using DCP (Digital Cinema Package).

Interestingly, it’s not Hollywood epics that Eliseo screens, but a rather undistinguished Dominican drama from 2005 called The Curse of Father Cardona, a little nod on the part of the director to the homogenizing tendencies of the global streaming platforms. (Though Netflix does have a presence in the Dominican Republic, you wouldn’t know it from The Projectionist, which unspools in backwaters where even the cellphone doesn’t seem to have penetrated.)

With his baggy eyes, unsmiling demeanor and gray beard telling us even before he's opened his mouth that he’s a curmudgeon, in secret Eliseo is romantic to the point of being an outright weirdo. He spends his evenings gazing at, talking to and sometimes pleasuring himself over old projected images of a woman (Lia Briones) whose story will not be revealed until later on, but whom Eliseo, tellingly, has named "Koda." Much — too much — is made of the parallels with the Pygmalion myth, but the notion that viewers are in love not with film stars, but with film itself, is a potent one. Anyone who’s ever adored a Hollywood star has behaved in a similar if less radical way to Eliseo, whose entire life is testament to the powerful hold over our imagination of thin, fragile strips of thermoplastic.

When a fire indeed destroys some of his old stock, Eliseo decides to visit one of the locations he has seen in his film, presumably to find out whether the object of his affections is still alive. Following a bit of semi-comic business in which she ruins a screening, he agrees to take with him Rubi (Cindy Galan), a bubbly, trouble-prone young woman also fleeing her demons. The arrival of Rubi injects a shot of energy into the pic via some entertaining bickering between the duo, instantly making it more likable.

Arriving in a pueblo in which everyone is watching the TV in bars, the two stage a blackout to drive the public toward Eliseo’s screenings: The plight of the traditional movie theater, under attack from the major streaming players, thus finds its commentary in the unusual location of the backwoods of the Caribbean.

There is a comfortably retro and down-to-earth feel about the simple, unpretentious way the film tells its story. It is not in the least clever, self-aware or modern, which is not necessarily a bad thing, and it’s entirely in keeping with the nature of its protagonist.

The Projectionist’s final sequence, shot in a remote abandoned house and featuring a too hastily handled plot twist, breaks with the mood thus far and feels overly compressed, but nonetheless plays out as a strikingly shot psychodrama, Lenser Hernan Herrera doing his utmost to fuse imagination with reality, past with present, as an emotionally overwhelmed Eliseo struggles to free himself from Koda's grip.

If that sounds as delirious and sub-Freudian as any Latin American soap, then it probably is, but Cabral's directorial craftsmanship and canny editing from Spain's Nacho Ruiz Capillas work together to prevent The Projectionist from falling over the edge of dramatic excess. Scenes of Elisio frenziedly cutting and splicing reel-to-reel tape as he pursues the truth are redolent of The Conversation and other retro techno-thrillers, while parallels with Cinema Paradiso will inevitably be raised, although job descriptions aside, there’s really no connection between the two.

Herrera satisfyingly renders a variety of attractive country town locations in a range of moods, the screening scenes operating as mini-homages to the power of cinema to unite communities — something else that’s being lost. The Projectionist is shot not on digital but in traditional widescreen, since doing it any other way would not be true to Eliseo’s mission.

Production company: Tabula Rasa
Cast: Felix German, Cindy Galan, Lia Briones
Director-screenwriter: Jose María Cabral
Producer: Juan Basanta
Executive producer: Jose Maria Cabral
Director of photography: Hernan Herrera
Art director, costume designer: Rafi Mercado
Editor: Nacho Ruiz Capillas
Composer: Lucas Suarez

Venue: Miami Film Festival (Knight Marimbas Competition)
Sales: Media Luna

97 minutes