Winner of several awards including the Sutherland Award at this year’s London Film Festival, Director Pablo Giorgelli discusses his latest film and how subtle direction creates powerful beauty.
Today’s cinema has given a huge wealth of variety to the viewer. From simpering rom coms, high voltage musicals, fast-paced thrillers, and ultra-violent action to mind-blowing sci-fi, Hollywood negotiates the gamut of entertainment. One area woefully under-represented in mainstream cinema, however, is the slow-moving, brooding and infinitely subtle studies on relationships and personality that can prove so rewarding for the viewer. Films such as Lost in Translation and Dogville touched on these merits, but few filmmakers are willing to venture into an ambitious negotiation of one room, two characters and only a handful of dialogue. It’s so easy to quickly lose viewers and funding, as well as gain accusations of being boring. Done well, however, this technique can also become hugely rewarding in the manner in which it provides almost a real-time, slow reveal of a person – something that Pablo Giorgelli achieves with consummate ease in his feature-length debut, Las Acacias.
Acutely pared down and claustrophobic at times, Las Acacias limits itself almost entirely to one lorry cab on a long journey across the plains of South America. The film opens with the solitary trucker and protagonist, Rubén, collecting his haul of timber and preparing for his ninth cross-country trek. But this trip has the potential (unrecognised by the brusque, cold Rubén) to be different, because shortly down the road Rubén collects a hitch-hiker arranged by his boss and is visibly agitated to discover that she (and he) will be travelling the long drive with her five-month old baby, Anahí. The passenger, Jacinta, quickly learns to conform to Rubén’s curt silence and becomes as sparing with her words as he is. Lengthy periods of silence ensue. Interrupted by Anahí’s piercing wail and the adults’ terse glances it’s uncomfortable viewing, and clear that this journey will not be an easy one for anyone involved. Stops for baby feeding were evidently not written into Rubén’s agenda and at one roadside café he covertly enquires into the price of a bus ticket for his unwanted companions and is prevented from his purchase presumably only by his trucker’s salary. However, as the journey continues, enquiring stares from the adorable Anahí’s large brown eyes start to reduce Rubén’s hostility.
The dialogue between him and Jacinta remains sparse, but is peppered with curiosities about each other’s lives, and the viewer finds himself willing the characters to probe more information out of one another. As understanding and affection grows between the three passengers, Rubén takes on a paternal role over Anahí, pulling her fingers, distracting her from her hunger, and making the faces that people only make around babies. We learn that Jacinta is estranged from Anahí’s father, that she is visiting a cousin and that her mother cleans the house of Rubén’s boss. Meanwhile Rubén reveals that he is a father himself, but has not seen his son in many years, briefly visits his sister to present her with a late gift, and has been driving for well over two decades. Amidst these sparse facts, the viewer pieces together the backgrounds of these people’s lives and a lot of the film is the victim of speculation and the creation of a personal narrative against these quiet, controlled characters.
Upon dropping Jacinta at her cousin’s house, Rubén’s solitude is once again manifested, and his regret is demonstrated by his desire to have one more meeting with Jacinta as a way to build on the relationship they have achieved – the closest relationship in a long time, for Rubén at least. Both adults are reluctant to leave each other. Although Jacinta’s new beginning and her attempts to find work in Buenos Aires are only just starting, she is keen to see Rubén again and acutely aware that he does not have so much to look forward to. After a poignant farewell, Giorgelli ends Las Acacias in an ambiguous moment of flux between togetherness and separation, making a remarkable film, where the viewer is as much a part of creating the narrative as the actors, writers and director.
Although he has a long cinematic career, Las Acacias is Giorgelli’s first feature length film and a project close to his heart. In spite of building a solid reputation editing films, including Moebius (1994), and claiming that, “editing is the process that I enjoy most. It is definitely the most intimate moment of filmmaking, when the movie reveals itself,” Giorgelli also argues: “I think that ever since I was a teenager, I felt on the inside like [I was] a film-director.”
Since his first project Último Sueño (Last Dream), which he directed while still at film school, Giorgelli has focused on short films. He describes Último Sueño as “an incomprehensible, delusional piece, which focuses more on form than on content” and dismisses his early pretensions: “I gloated mainly over technical matters. I believe that I did not have much to say at the time.” In Las Acacias, Giorgelli has instead achieved a fine focus on the craft of character acting, and a balance between the roles of director and editor, allowing his actors to grapple with the complexities of their characters while maintaining a tight grip on the script, and certainly disposing of any superfluous dialogue. The result has been an overwhelming response at the festivals, with Las Acacias scooping the ACID, Camera D’Or and Young Critics Awards at Cannes, the Films from the South Award at Oslo and the Sutherland Trophy at the BFI London Film Festival. On this international success Giorgelli will only say it is “a very big surprise. The film is being very well received in several different countries, but mostly the reactions are the same … my film talks about something that is universal.”
With such a sparse script, the film owes a significant amount to the stellar abilities of its lead actors: “It is one of the key points of the film, and I couldn’t get it wrong here because the film is essentially them.” Germán de Silva plays Rubén, and continues his long tradition of character acting and lends a gravitas and empathy to what could have become an awkward character to love, while Hebe Duarte is an exceptional newcomer as Jacinta, her ordinary beauty and quiet dignity contrasting with Rubén’s rough exterior and gruff mannerisms. Giorgelli’s initial plan for Rubén was to find a real-life truck driver: “We began auditioning, for almost a year. I saw many, but none that I really thought fitted the role. I realised I had to look for someone who would have to improvise but who could also respect the script and could fit the role of my imagined Rubén.” Ironically, on casting de Silva, he achieved an added layer of authenticity: “the best praise for the film was when someone asked after a screening: is he an actor or a real truck driver?”
Las Acacias’ success relies on a deep understanding of its intention between director and actors: “Germán was very quick to understand the spirit of Rubén and above all the tone I wanted for the film; this idea about not pushing and not exaggerating anything. And like Germán, Hebe understood straight away who Jacinta was and she brought aspects of her Paraguayan nationality that really enriched the role. And well … when we introduced her to the baby it was magic. They really seemed like mother and daughter and still today, watching the film, I can’t believe that they aren’t actually related.” In her acting debut, Duarte was chosen in spite of her lack of experience: “Hebe is not a professional actress but she is a tremendous natural actress – intuitive, with a great emotional intelligence [and] what can I say about Nayra, the baby … it was a miracle. She appeared only a month before the shoot and I noticed in the audition that she had something special, she looked at me directly in the eyes and held her gaze, until I started to feel a little intimidated.”
Rubén’s solitude is an important aspect of the film and it’s unclear how enforced and unwelcome it actually is. At the beginning of the film he is very much his own man who fiercely guards his independence and privacy, but the fact that Jacinta and Anahí are forced into his world causes him to re-evaluate his loneliness in a way he hadn’t before imagined. At times Rubén’s demeanour is genuinely heart-breaking – revealing his estranged son to Jacinta, his ensuing silence speaks volumes, and his face on witnessing the affectionate welcome that she receives at her cousin’s house reveals his deepest regrets at his own solitary existence.
While this scene seems to be a turning point in his attitude, Giorgelli is keen not to be too prescriptive on Rubén’s path from here: “Like you, I don’t know much more about his future … I just know that I can see in the 85 minute running time of the film that he is not the same person at the end of the film, his protective shield was broken and he could open, just a little bit, his heart.” It’s a refreshingly simplistic way of viewing a character’s arc, and similarly, the mystery surrounding Jacinta’s circumstances (who is Anahí’s father? Why are they not in touch? What is she leaving in Paraguay and what is she hoping to find in Buenos Aires?) is similarly left unexplained.
The importance of the film for Giorgelli is not in prescribing a narrative, but in the universal themes it carries. “My film is a story about love. And I see it as a popular film; a film that connects well with the audience. It is not a difficult film, hermetic or incomprehensible. And I would say that it has something to do with the universality of the story being told, with its profoundly human essence.” We witness isolation, regret and unspoken sadness in both Rubén and Jacinta, but the character of the five-month-old baby also represents new beginnings and new hope, and she proves to be a common bond between her fellow travellers.
The use of intense, very close up and isolated shots on each character gradually gives way through the film to encompass both protagonists, but the truck’s cabin remains the main set throughout. This cinematography stems from the minimal dialogue: “The principal idea is simple but powerful. What is important is the interior conflict this man felt about fatherhood. From here came the idea to shoot the film up close, to see the journey through their eyes, to see what the characters see.” Somewhat controversially for something that was conceived as a road movie, this entailed a major rejection of landscape shots and sweeping views of the roadside, something that was difficult to resist given the stunning backdrop of South America.
However, Giorgelli maintained his idea saying: “I should admit that at the start I was a little terrified about shooting the film in this way, but I never stopped feeling that this was a road movie.” Argentina is a country of vast and dramatic landscapes, and they are dramatically toned down and only hinted at in homage to the film’s close-cropped, simplistic style. Giorgelli describes it as seeing the landscape “exactly as they see it, through the windshield but also via the truck’s enormous wing mirrors. The landscape that we see advancing is the slow transformation, towards the future, just like what is happening to the characters. I think that the landscape plays an important role in the film, precisely because it is not in the foreground, instead we discover the landscape with them.”
In cropping the camera’s view Giorgelli emphasises the intimacy between the characters: “It was like creating a box with precious boundaries, inside everything matters, nothing matters outside,” and because of this, Las Acacias becomes a phenomenally personal project. It stems from the director’s own preoccupations with fatherhood, but offers a beautiful and rewarding portrayal of the loneliness we have all felt, and the promise of companionship to come.
Las Acacias was showing in selected cinemas from 2 December 2011.