Ricardo Bär: FIDMarseille Review

Ricardo Bär
Compellingly multi-layered documentary finds fresh angles on contemporary religious faith.

Experimental documentary from Argentina follows a young farmer's spiritual journey.

A quietly compelling character-study allowing privileged glimpses of an intriguing, isolated community, Ricardo Bär is one of the more effective recent examples of spiritually-themed cinema. Following the daily life of a devout Christian farmer who dreams of studying theology and becoming a pastor, this carefully modulated, low-key debut by writer-directors Gerardo Naumann and Nele Wohlatz takes a daringly, deconstructingly post-modern approach to documentary that pays considerable dividends. World-premiering at Buenos Aires' BAFICI festival in April, it picked up a Special Mention in the First Film competition at Marseille and will prove a popular choice for edgier festivals and those specializing in religious and ethnographic themes.

The eponymous Bär is, as his name hints, descended from Germans who in the early 20th century settled the hilly, heavily forested, Portunal-speaking Misiones region of northern Argentina very close to the Brazilian border. His home town of Colonia Aurora retains certain linguistic and social links to the Fatherland, with German still used in liturgy and hymns at the Baptist church. As the directors inform us in voice-over, their first attempt to chronicle the community on film provoked hostility and ultimately rejection, partly because of their Lutheran upbringing and partly because aspects of their 'modern' lifestyle were disapproved of by traditional, conservative church elders.

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Happening upon the thirtyish Bär in a gas-station, Naumann and Wohlatz -- whose sole previous credit is the 12-minute Novios del Campo (2009) -- decided to make him the focus of their filming, partly because of his personal quiet charisma and partly as a conduit to gain an understanding of the area. The directors, who contribute intermittent solo narration, are always very open and direct about their intentions, and one of the early scenes involves Bär being told that the filmmakers will pay for his theological studies in the capital on the condition that he collaborates with their project: "they'll film your life, your farm work, your family". Praying to God, Bär thanks Him "for this film, which is such a complex work, and which will influence so many people."

What follows acknowledges and even embraces the artificiality, compromises and conventions of current documentary cinema, with a transparency and openness that's as beguiling and refreshing as Bär's earnest approach to his faith. An intense, broodingly handsome young man with penetrating eyes that always seem to see beyond the world's trivial surfaces, this non-pro protagonist seems sometimes to have stepped straight out of Robert Bresson's classic French ruminations on spirituality in the modern world.

Ricardo Bär itself meanwhile continues the decade-old strong run of serious-minded cinema from Argentina, which has propelled directors such as Lisandro Alonso and Lucrecia Martel into the international spotlight. Naumann and Wohlatz's preference for short scenes, however, rather that the 'standard' long takes, places their picture at the more accessible end of the Latin American art-film spectrum - the editing is by the highly experienced Felipe Guerrero, who cut last year's Colombian standout  La Playa DC for Juan Andres Arango.

Another standout contributor behind the scenes is cinematographer Lucas Gaynor, whose sole previous credit is Gonzalo Tobal's road-movie Villegas (2012). Working on what what presumably a very limited budget, Gaynor consistently crafts impressively limpid images that unfussily capture the particular atmospheres of town, country, village and farm, with immersive assistance from Francisco Pedemonte, Jose Maria Aviles's soundscapes.

Venue: FIDMarseille (International Competition)
Production companies: Subterranea Films, Zentral Cine
Directors / Screenwriters / Producers:
Gerardo Naumann, Nele Wohlatz
Executive producer: Pablo Robert

Director of photography: Lucas Gaynor
Editor: Felipe Guerrero
Sales: Subterranea Films, Buenos Aires
No MPAA rating, 96 minutes