‘Road to La Paz’ (‘Camino a la Paz’): Busan Review

Road to La Paz Still 2 - H 2015
Courtesy of Figa Films

A touching, gently comic film that never achieves true depth.

Odd-couple road movie about two very different men at their respective crossroads.

The name of Bolivia's capital La Paz, means ‘peace’. It's one of those place names which lends itself easily to a punning title, and the makers of Road to La Paz have duly fallen for the temptation. But luckily, that’s the clumsiest thing about this two-hander road journey, in which a slacker is briefly given shot at a more fulfilling life. Engaging and winsome, but not perhaps as profound as it thinks, Road to La Paz portrays a road well traveled by road movies in its depiction of its protagonist’s spiritual shift. But what’s interesting here is that it’s the passenger, and not the places, which impact most on our hero, on a journey which could be taking place almost anywhere. Festival pickups are likely beyond Road's 12th November release at home in Argentina.

The setup is slow. Unemployed and 35, Sebastian (Rodrigo de la Serna, looking like a seedier Gael Garcia Bernal) lives in Buenos Aires in virtual poverty with his new wife Jazmin (Elisa Carricajo): his only escape is into his rock band, and is only possession of note is his father’s old Peugeot 505, towards which he’s fiercely protective. Sebastian isn’t a cab driver, but after receiving a couple of insistent phone calls asking him whether he is, he spots an opportunity.

His caller is Jalil (renowned Argentine actor Ernesto Suarez, here making his screen debut at 75), an elderly, ailing and very devout Muslim who suggests that Sebastian drives him to La Paz, a distance of some 2,000 miles: from there, Jalil hopes somehow to make it to Mecca. After some irritation from Sebastian at Jalil’s constant praying and peeing, they hit and injure a dog, which the call Mubarak and which Jalil insists joins them for the ride; they visit some family of Jalil; and, in the film's centerpiece, they attend a house where a dhikr, a Sufi Muslim devotional act, is taking place. Sebastian doesn’t have a clue what’s going on, but he knows it’s a display of human bonding and community of which he isn’t a part. After they are robbed and stripped of everything they own, the two men start to connect on a human level.

If that makes Road to La Paz sound like a Paolo Coelho novel, then to a point it’s true: like Coelho, director/screenwrite Francisco Varone is selling exoticism as redemption. There are interesting questions to be asked about why in these troubled times Varone should choose a Muslim to be as Sebastian’s surrogate spiritual tutor: it’s a risky choice, perhaps, but it comes off.

Though both de la Serna and Suarez are strong in their roles, with de la Serna’s eyes seeming to express constant yearning, it’s the relationship between them that really counts, and they’re rarely seen outside it. Jalil is who he is: gently phlegmatic, he doesn’t change even when, for example, tied by a rope to a tree. But the script is elegant in the way it maneuvers these two very different characters into juxtaposition, recognizing that both are dreamers, in search of some reward beyond the everyday. It’s there that the film’s emotional impact lies, as encompassed in its quietest most touching scene, in which Jilal offers Sebastian the 'gift' of converting to Islam.

Sometimes the script is a little too set up and knock down: for example, within about three minutes of telling Sebastian that she’s hoping to be promoted, Jazmin is fired. Jazmin: the viewer can’t help but think of her back in Buenos Aires, unexplored as a character except as a brake on Sebastian’s happiness and presumably still wanting a baby, while Sebastian is away having his spiritual insights.

The score basically consists of grungy blues music from Argentine band Vox Dei, who’ve been around for nearly 50 years. What is heard here will satisfy their old fans, but is unlikely to win them any new ones. D.P Christian Cottet opts for a busy, hand-held approach during the early part, before settling down later into longer, static shots as the calming influence of Jalil on Sebastian makes itself felt.

Production companies: Gema Films, No Problem Cine, Concreto FIlms, Habbekrats, Hanfgam & Ufer Filmproduktion
Cast: Rodrigo de la Serna, Ernesto Suarez, Elisa Carricajo, Maria Canale
Director, screenwriter: Francisco Varone
Producers: Gema Juarez Allen, Julius Ponte, Philip Harthoorn, Gunter Hanfgam, Omar Jadur, Dolores Llosas, Juan Taratuto
Executive producer: Sebastian Perillo
Director of photography: Christian Cottet
Production designer: Daniela Podcaminsky
Costume designer: Delfina de Forteza
Editor: Alberto Ponce, Federico Peretti
Composer: Vox Dei
Casting director: Juan Risso
Sales: Figa Films

No rating, 94 minutes