The road is the destination... Germán de Silva and Hebe Duarte in Las Acacias (2011)
Pablo Giorgelli's debut feature, Las Acacias, belongs to a recent movement which critics have baptized "slow cinema", defied by diegetic sound, long shots and unhurried editing. The tag is frequently a byword for tedium, attributed to films which test the patience of an audience. They bring to mind a question: are all films required to have a story? I ask because Las Acacias has a setup, and doesn't give thought to traditional narrative convention. It goes thusly: Rubén (Germán de Silva) is an enigmatic and largely mute truck driver from Argentina who has agreed to carry Jacinta (Hebe Duarte) and her eight-month-old son Anahí (Nayra Calle Mamani) across the border from Paraguay to Buenos Aries. They drive. They drive some more. They stop for food. The journey is resumed. Giorgelli structures his picture around the theme of repetition. Here "slow cinema" appears as a byword for a cinema in which nothing happens, or at least nothing of consequence. Alfred Hitchcock once said, in a dispiriting fashion I might add, that "most pictures you see are photographs of people talking", meaning that they don't necessarily require the qualities of cinema to tell their tales. But perhaps we're thinking of cinema too rigidly, which is a common mistake when faced with a technique which differs from the norm.
A recent example of slow cinema is Meek's Cutoff (Reichardt, 2010), a largely silent Western about settlers on the Oregon trail. It's a film which takes time to observe faces and landscapes, protracting time to emphasize the unbearable conditions of frontier life. It drags, and yet the film is made up of nothing but set-pieces. The narrative is driven by events, for example the capture of a Cayuse man played by Rod Rondeaux. Salon critic Andrew O. Heir described the film as "a thriller or a horror movie in extreme slow motion." He's exactly right. Even the films of Béla Tarr are driven this way. I view Werckmeister Harmonies (2000) as a monster movie. Las Acacias is a road movie. The genre's primary theme is growth, and yet this tale feels stunted, lacking any kind of hook for an audience. You could fall asleep for twenty minutes and wake up to the same sight - Anahí crying as Rubén's timber truck rumbles past the landscape. He still looks gruff. What incentive has Giorgelli given the viewer to engage with this tale? The characters' faces hold inherent mystery, but they alone cannot sustain interest.
The film is beautifully photographed by DP Diego Poleri, who captures an authentically dusty exterior from the limitations of Rubén's truck. I could discuss the framing of certain shots, and the delicacy of the lighting. The use of natural sound. All components of "slow cinema." But when one begins to notice these things a bigger problem announces itself - a complete lack of engagement with the onscreen action; the characters and their arcs. I suspect the screenplay was filled with directions and no more than ten pages of dialogue, none of which probes into backstory. For once exposition could have been forgiven. When two characters are driving across the country, characters who've never met before, would it not be natural to have them at some point discuss their lives? What the actors have to work with is the psychological implication of their journey. Where are they going, and what does it mean for them when they arrive? The performances are wonderfully naturalistic, but perhaps that's because they're not prisoners to language, which is so often contrived for the purpose of plot. A benefit of "slow cinema" I suppose.
When the ending arrives Rubén asks Jacinta if she would like to accompany him on a journey the following week. There's a glint of romance in his eyes, and we suddenly become aware that he has developed feelings for her. A reverse shot to her reaction reveals that the feeling might be mutual. The footage which unfurls this development must have been left on the cutting room floor though, because there's no trace of it in the first 75 minutes of Las Acacias, which drags on for what feels like a lifetime. It's a real shame, because there's so much potential in Giorgelli's setup. He's just not interested in story.
Las Acacias is showing at the London Film Festival on Tuesday 18th October. The film's official UK release date is December 2nd. This review can originally be found at Flickfeast.