'Refugiado': Cannes Review

REFUGIADO Still Cannes - H 2014
Courtesy of Festival de Cannes

REFUGIADO Still Cannes - H 2014

Plangent without being cloying, this is a solid issue-driven drama straight out of the Dardennes Brothers/Ken Loach/Andrea Arnold school of handheld social realism.

Diego Lerman's second appearance in Directors' Fortnight tracks a mother and son on the run through Argentina from an abusive husband.

A pregnant woman (Julieta Diaz) and her 7-year-old son (Sebastian Ezequiel Molinaro) go on the run from the boy’s abusive father in Argentinean director Diego Lerman’s fourth feature film, his second to show at the Cannes Directors’ Fortnight sidebar after 2010’s The Invisible Eye. Although not anywhere near as political as the 1980s-set parable Eye, and more straightforwardly conventional than Lerman’s previous efforts -- the stylized monochrome kidnapping comedy Suddenly (2002) and the criss-crosser Meanwhile (2007) -- Refugiado is poignant, admirably executed and touchingly performed by its two leads. If it feels perhaps a smidge too adherent to the Dardennes Brothers/Ken Loach/Andrea Arnold school of handheld social realism, that’s probably no bad thing for its international distribution prospects. Plus, it’s exactly the sort of gritty issue-anchored movie film festivals love.

Matias (Molinaro) is a stolid little man with a mop of luxuriant ringlets and the ancient eyes of a child who’s seen too much horror at home already. When his mother Laura (Diaz) fails to pick him up at another child’s birthday party (a scene of sonic assault that sets the tone of the exceedingly sharp and evocative sound design throughout), another mother takes him home to the rundown projects on the outskirts of Buenos Aires where he lives. There, they find Laura black and blue after another beating from her husband, Fabian (who’s never seen onscreen).

The protective nexus of police, doctors and social workers kicks into gear and Laura and Mati are swiftly re-homed straight from the hospital in a state-run woman-and-children’s shelter. Mati settles in quickly, befriending another little girl who’s been through the same mill. A delightful-yet-appalling scene observes them playfully mimicking the cruel insults they’ve heard from their fathers. But Laura, still ambivalent about leaving Fabian, can’t cope with the shelter’s communal dormitories, almshouse-style squalor and painful counseling sessions.

At court one day to get a restraining order against Fabian, Laura decides to run away with Mati and seek help from her friends at the sweatshop garment factory where she used to work. However, they learn that Fabian has been looking for them everywhere and it’s only a matter of time before he tracks them down. Nowhere seems safe, not even a flophouse hotel, and Mati fears he’s made things worse when he answers Laura’s constantly ringing cellphone one night while she’s in the shower and talks to his dad.  

Lerman deftly ratchets up the suspense as the film progresses as to whether the twosome, perpetually in movement in the second half, will get caught by Fabian or successfully escape his clutches. A scene where they sneak into their old apartment to collect belongings will gets viewers inwardly shouting at the screen when Mati decides he doesn’t want to leave his toys, father and life behind and locks himself in the bathroom.

Lead Julieta Diaz is an established player in Argentine film and TV, and does solid work with Laura’s slightly underwritten role, and Molinaro is a feisty and empathic presence, although with actors this young it’s always a mystery as to who deserves the credit for his performance, the actor, the director or the editor.

DoP Wojtek Staron delicately suggests a child’s-eye view of the world with plenty of low-slung camera positions, although the film doesn’t stick rigidly to Mati’s POV. But odd angles, like the view of a street from the top of an ambulance, add to the sense that everything is slightly out of whack. The score by Jose Villalobos (like co-writer Maria Meira, a returning collaborator) is plangent without being cloying, exactly like the movie itself.

Production companies: Campo Cine S.R.L.,Staron Films, Burning Blue, Bellota Films, Gale Cine, Sudestada, 27 Films, B Media Global

Cast: Julieta Diaz, Sebastian Ezequiel Molinaro

Director: Diego Lerman

Screenwriter: Diego Lerman, Maria Meira

Cinematographer: Wojtek Staron

Production designer: Michaela Saiegh, Sabrina Campos

Editor: Alejandro Brodersohn

Composer: Jose Villalobos

Sales: Memento Films

No rating, 95 minutes