‘Walking Distance’ (‘Distancias Cortas’): Chicago Review

Courtesy of Pluto Films
A drama whose simplicity is sometimes just simplistic.

Gentle drama about the slow redemption of a supersized hero.

The tagline of Walking Distance, “small steps can change our lives”, essentially unveils the drama in six words. A quietly uplifting film about the redemption through friendship of the blighted existence of a very overweight man, the film is not unlike any number of oddball buddy movies, but what sets Mexican Alejandro Guzman Alvarez's feature debut apart is the figure at its center, a physically massive individual with a tiny, fragile ego.

Though it refuses to dig very deeply into some of the sensitive issues it raises, and despite a tendency towards the mawkish, there’s still enough here to suggest that Distance could proceed slowly into other Spanish-themed fests following its Chicago appearance. Indeed, the world could probably handle a few more non-docus about this particular issue.

The opening image, memorably, is of the morbidly obese protagonist, Fede (Luca Ortega), sitting with his immense, naked, glistening back to camera. As D.P. Diana Garay Vinas’ camera zooms slowly in, within about fifteen seconds the viewer is already feeling uncomfortably voyeuristic, but such discomfort is quickly forgotten. It’s as though scripter Itzel Lara has wisely decided to get the freak factor over and done with right at the start.

Friendless, innocent to the point of childishness and continually nagged by his sister Rosaura (Martha Claudia Moreno), Fede weighs somewhere north of 450 pounds and hasn’t left his frankly squalid house since the death of his mother ten years before. He spends his time threading beads onto string, presumably to sell them, and, encouraged by his brother-in-law Ramon (Mauricio Isaac), dreaming of taking photographs.

When he discovers an old camera film, Fede determines to get it developed and heads off on a (for him) marathon walk to the local camera shop, where he meets Paolo (Joel Figueroa), gets his film developed and buys a cheap camera which he protects like a kid with a new toy. When it needs to be repaired, Paolo shows up at his front door to help, and the pair embarks on one of those odd-couple relationships which, when they are joined by the hen-pecked Ramon, quickly turns into an odd-trio relationship.

Walking Distance proceeds very much at walking pace, and over the first half hour, its slow rhythms sometimes seem to be emulating the heavy, uncomfortable progress of Fede himself as he huffs and puffs. Though this is probably entirely appropriate, directly conveying some of the flavor of Fede’s lifestyle, at time’s it’s unnecessarily languorous. The elephant in the room - in this case, the metaphor is more apt than usual -- comes after an hour, when the subject of Fede’s obesity is broached directly and its transpires that he had a heart attack years before.

Ramon is escaping from Rosaura and will use his friendship with Fede to claim a independence from her. But what’s in the relationship for Paolo is not so clear, and the script is not over-generous with him, briefly sketching out a fatherless backstory for him before dropping his background altogether. Rosaura is sensitively played by Moreno as a woman who views herself as long-suffering, but who is actually just one more bar of the cage in which Fede has chosen to live.

Present in every scene, Ortega (actually the drummer in a well-known Mexican rock band) does great work physically, successfully conveying the hassle involved for a very big man in getting out of arm chairs, putting on a jacket, and simply advancing. He earns the viewer's sympathy from the outset. But in other ways, it’s a performance which lacks nuance, shifting uncomplicatedly between the poles of melancholy and joy, with Fede never able to verbalize very much at all about what it’s actually like to be Fede. Given that his obesity makes him remarkable, this is a disappointing shunning of responsibility by a script which wants to push through the feelgood element at the expense of subtlety.

The effect of this is to make Walking Distance at times an unnecessarily sentimental film, an effect emphasized by Ortega’s own, piano-based score. The issue of how Fede actually got this way -- what dark, complex emotions brought him here -- is never broached by a script which seems over-determined to keep it simple all round, but which is nonetheless often effective and unfailingly respectful of its unusual hero and his special problems.

Production companies: Centro de Capacitacion Cinematografica, FOPROCINE
Cast: Luca Ortega, Mauricio Isaac, Joel Figueroa, Martha Claudia Moreno
Director: Alejandro Guzman Alvarez
Screenwriter: Itzel Lara
Producers: Henner Hofmann, Karla Bukantz
Director of photography: Diana Garay Vinas
Production designer: Roxana Lojero
Costume designer: Gisela Sanchez
Editor: Juan Manuel Figueroa
Composer: Luis ‘Luca’ Ortega
Casting director: Viridiana Olvera
Sales: Pluto Film

No rating, 104 minutes