Dominic Ambrose Blogblot

of words: narrative, film and non-fiction

Cámara Oscura: The dubious art of searching desperately for beauty that is all around you

camaraposter The Argentine film, “La Cåmara Oscura,” directed by María Victoria Menis, tells the story of a woman who has been stigmatized from childhood as “ugly” and who goes through life yearning for joy. When her children are grown, a fateful encounter with an itinerant photographer makes the beauty inside of her finally blossom. This story is told in the idyllic setting of Entre Rios, Argentina in the 1920s, among campesinos who have immigrated from Eastern Europe. Their old world Jewish customs are skillfully interwoven with the Argentine society around them, and this makes the film charmingly familiar and unusual at the same time.

The actors turn in good performances, especially Patrick Dell’Isola as the photographer who has seen war at Gallipoli. However, I had difficulty resigning myself to the director’s choice of having the female lead playing her part so dryly. If silences and stone cold detachment can be called overacting, then Mirta Bogdasarian as Gertrudis Kohen gives what may be the Sarah Bernhardt performance of the year. We understand from sequences from her childhood that Gertrudis has been somewhat psychologically abused by her mother, and has developed a severe inhibition about expressing her appreciation of the beauty of life or reaching out for love. However, the extreme level of disengagement with the world that this character exhibits during the film seems exaggerated and melodramatic when it is not credible and it seems cold and antipathic when it is credible. If she had just opened up on occasion in some tender scenes, we would be able to feel her vulnerability and empathize with her yearning, but we never see that, except in a faint shadow of a smile here and there. It is hard to feel anything for her when she casts a deadening shadow over the ensemble of her household, made up of children and husband, all full of brio and joie de vivre. This is especially true in her interaction with her daughters, making the viewer wonder how these girls managed to avoid the maternal curse of gloom. If everybody treats her like chopped liver, who could blame them?

I imagine that the director made this acting choice in order to enhance the contrast of Gertudis’ loveless marriage with the smiles of contentment that she allows herself toward the end of the film. And indeed, this works very well, her final images with smiles on her face are moving and unusually expressive. However, it doesn’t erase the bitter taste of her performance over the length of the film. Gertrudis has lived an enviably peaceful existence, far from the cruelties and suffering of the world beyond the pampas and espinal, yet she never acknowledges this, as she can only see beauty in the distant stars and moon. Moreover, her decision at the end, if we read the open end to its logical conclusion, seems rather egotistical, and only confirms the impression that she has never considered her place as mother of a family as anything more than a duty imposed on her from without, and that her joy and fulfillment would be found elsewhere. And speaking of the ending, this open-ended cliché is one of the most overused and irritating gimmicks of auteur film, along with the pointless flashback cliché which opens the film. This director is too skilled and nuanced for that stuff, and would do well to put them aside.

On the whole it is a well crafted film visually and it can offer an entertaining hour and a half of cinema, as long as you mentally rewrite Gertrudis’s part in your mind, giving her the depth of emotion that is woefully lacking on the screen.


September 3, 2009 - Posted by | cinema | , , ,

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