'Roads in February' ('Les routes en fevrier'): Film Review | TIFF 2018

Courtesy of TIFF
A restrained summertime drama.

This feature debut from Montreal-based Canadian director Katherine Jerkovic stars Arlen Aguayo Stewart and Gloria Demassi and is entirely set in rural Uruguay.

A backpacker arrives from Canada to visit her paternal grandmother in rural Uruguay in the quiet drama Roads in February (Les routes en fevrier/Las rutas en febrero). But it isn’t quite a courtesy visit or a happy reunion, as the death of the girl’s father hovers over the visit like a dark cloud that neither party seems particularly ready to acknowledge. Though perhaps a little too much remains unsaid for the story to be fully engaging, this is nonetheless a promising debut feature from Canadian director Katherine Jerkovic (her parents are from Latin America). It premiered in Toronto in the Contemporary World Cinema section and should especially appeal to festivals specialized in young talents.

When the movie opens, Sara (Arlen Aguayo Stewart) is on her way from Montevideo to the countryside village where her grandmother, Magda (Gloria Demassi), still lives. Though she tries to reach her by phone several times, no one seems to answer. Sara finally arrives at her destination late at night. Magda, who lives alone, is surprised and cool rather than cordial to her granddaughter from Canada, though she does make a bed for her visitor. The two women try to come to a workable entente over the next few days as a gift exchanges hands and groceries are bought and discussed. The elephant in the room, however, isn’t really addressed until about 20 minutes in, with Jerkovic, who also penned the script, basically working hard for the remaining 60-odd minutes to turn the line “You don’t want to talk about Dad?” into a rhetorical question. 

That said, “Sarita,” as Magda calls her, isn’t exactly in a hurry to leave and sometimes just spending time with a person might be almost as valuable as asking someone to explicitly verbalize their deepest feelings of loss and grief. Though she doesn't mention the recent loss of her son, who was set to come and visit when he died, Magda does talk to a gossipy local friend, Olga (Cecila Baranda), about the fact Sara gave up her dream of becoming an actress to work at a bar. It is the starting shot of a subtle exploration of the generation gap between the two women which also further emphasizes the absence of the dead man, who is the missing generational link. “Why would you move abroad to become a waitress?” Magda wonders. But raising the matter is important because it hints at Magda’s desire for her granddaughter to fulfill her dreams while incidentally providing viewers with some backstory as well, as it becomes clear Sara and her father spent at least some time in Uruguay before emigrating to Canada (Sara’s still very fluent Spanish was another hint). 

Quite the independent young woman, Sara doesn’t shy away from exploring the village and even a nearby town, where she runs into a cute biker (Mathias Perdigon) her own age who shows her the sights and takes her swimming. This particular subplot starts as an idyll and ends in tears, though certainly not quite in the way audiences will be expecting. Aiming for a naturalistic and almost documentary tone throughout the film, Jerkovic here uses a deft narrative sleight of hand. The incident feels accidental but simultaneously functions as Sara’s reckoning with a loss and the harsher realities of her now fatherless world. It is both just something that happened during that one summer — February in the southern hemisphere is of course the height of the belle saison — she went to visit her grandma and something much greater than that, like her true coming-of-age moment. It also feels significant that it happens in the country of her parents and grandparents but without any of them present; this is the moment she became both aware of her roots and truly independent.   

More mainstream audiences might find the narrative a little bit too restrained for their taste and, indeed, a smidgen more exposition could have made the characters and their shared but largely unaddressed condition more easily relatable and affecting. That said, the reticence of the two women to face their issues head-on never feels like an arty cop-out but actually a part of who these characters really are. Demassi, a 75-year-old veteran of the Uruguayan stage, is superb as a crabby woman who can be very outspoken in some areas while refusing to delve into others. Opposite her, relative newcomer Aguayo Stewart, her sleek dark hair a peroxide white at the tips, is more subdued, though she does manage to sketch the difference between Sara with Magda and Sara with the local youths she meets. 

Roads in February closes with a lovely tableau that reunites grandmother and granddaughter in a shared and quite intimate activity that suggests they've grown at least a little closer. In the background, through an open door, the warm and gentle rain can be seen falling outside. It’s a gorgeously domestic scene that is typical of the atmospheric and textured cinematography of Canadian cinematographer Nicolas Canniccioni (The Little Girl Who Was Too Fond of MatchesGenesis), who here again proves his versatility. The very minimalist score, credited to David Drury and Ines Canepa, is used only sparingly, which further heightens the sense of realism. 

Production companies: Productions 1976, Cordon Films
Cast: Arlen Aguayo Stewart, Gloria Demassi, Mathias Perdigon, Cecila Baranda, Rafael Soliwoda
Writer-director: Katherine Jerkovic
Producer: Nicolas Comeau 
Director of photography: Nicolas Canniccioni
Production designer: Olivier Laberge, Mariana Pereira
Costume designer: Vika Esquivel
Editor: Sophie Farkas-Bolla
Music: David Drury, Ines Canepa
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Contemporary World Cinema)
Sales: Figa Films

In Spanish
84 minutes