Friday, February 22, 2013

140. Uruguayan director Rodrigo Plá’s “La Demora” (The Delay) (2012): Meaningful and mature cinema that has universal relevance

An evocative poster of the film at the Berlin Film Festival
The conventional poster

Uruguay is not a country that one would easily associate with great cinema.  Even for Latin American standards, Uruguay cannot boast of major cinematic works.  And yet, Rodrigo Plá’s La demora (The Delay) offers without any doubt a major Uruguayan contemporary counterpoint to Michael Haneke’s Amour (Love), both films made in the same year, both major winners on the film festival circuit, both offering quality cinema that will grip the viewer right up to the end.

While Amour dealt with uxorial love, The Delay is all about paternal love. Both films deal with the problems of the elder citizens today. While Amour dealt with the problem within the economic comforts of a small Parisian apartment where the principal characters could afford hospitalization, home nurses, a baby grand piano, a good music system, and a concierge to buy groceries, The Delay pushes the viewer to the bitter realities of the Third World. These Third World realities include possible loss of a job that economically sustains the sizable family, the costs related to bringing up three young children by a single parent, old age homes in Montevideo (Uruguay’s capital) that are either too costly or are over populated with severely incapacitated elders to accommodate a less severe case of an old man struggling with the onset of dementia. While the world goes gaga over the subject and storytelling of Amour, the Uruguayan film The Delay is comparatively a lesser known and lesser celebrated cinematic work that underscores several social issues Haneke’s more sophisticated work never dealt with.

A modern "King Lear" played by first time actor Vallarino

One of the key issues The Delay deals with is with the travails of a single parent. At no point in the movie do the viewers get to know anything about the children’s father. Is he dead or alive? Was the mother married? Neither does Maria, the “Mother Courage” who is in her forties in this movie, ever talk about him or even indirectly refer to him. Rodrigo Plá’s film built on Laura Santullo’s script is very clear: the focus of the film is the relationship between a daughter and her aging father, just as Haneke’s film zooms in on the husband and wife relationship. All other characters in both films are mere foils to build the central relationship. The Plá-Santullo script includes a brief plea from Maria to her married sister to help take care of their father and the response is negative. The interaction is not so much to introduce and delve on the sister, but more to reiterate the situation of Maria and her commitment as a daughter to take care of her dad and her household of three growing kids all dependent on her as the sole breadwinner.  The script is equally silent on the absence of Maria’s mother—one can only assume she is dead.  So is the script clever in sidestepping the relationship of Maria with a male admirer, now married, who remains Maria’s only help in emergencies.  The script is equally clever in sidestepping the obvious action Maria ought to have taken in her search for her father, which she does at the end of the film. But then it is this cleverness that makes the film tick.

It is interesting to compare the scripts of the two films Amour and The Delay even further.  The response of Maria’s sister in The Delay contrasts starkly with the daughter of the old couple in Amour—both are averse to taking direct responsibility of the parent in distress and in urgent need for care.  The European and the economically stable frameworks presented in Amour’s screenplay offer a convenient way out for the daughter—place the parent in an affordable old age home. In The Delay, even for the less caring of the two daughters, the option would be to take care of the parent herself—which she refuses point blank for reasons never discussed in detail in the film. 

Maria (actress Blanco) combining "Cordelia" and "Mother Courage" 

The financial stress for the family plays a major emotional chord in The Delay, even though Maria’s family is not extremely poor by Third World standards. Maria works as a tailor/seamstress for a struggling medium-sized company and what she earns has to be hidden away in her stockings so that the money is not stolen or misspent. Even this hard earned sum gets almost destroyed when the stocking is put into the washing machine accidentally.  Director Plá and scriptwriter Santullo are able to weave in the financial stress and wry humor into the larger tale with a felicity that is commendable.  A hair-dressers wife in the movie wryly snaps at her husband (Maria’s long-term admirer) by stating that the value of his modest establishment has just hit the sky on the New York Stock exchange. And yet director Plá is not showing the warts of Uruguay’s less endowed environments but instead the middle class parts of Montevideo, clean and well maintained.

While Michael Haneke’s script of Amour focused on love between husband and wife, the Plá-Santullo script of The Delay deals with a similar love of a daughter for her father slipping further into dementia and/or aggravation of the Alzheimer’s disease. The financial stress leads to a sudden impulsive decision by the daughter Maria in The Delay, which is not very dissimilar to the sudden act  of the husband to end the misery of his wife in Amour. A viewer of The Delay could wonder where the love of the caring daughter seems to vaporize from that impulsive point onward.  And it is this brief switching off of the parental love in The Delay and the final resolution of the tale that makes the film admirable. The film provides sufficient clues that there is no fracture in the love between daughter and father. In fact, Maria is not just a daughter to her father but a “mother” to her father.

But how does director Plá make the script come alive? He gives ample footage to prove that the father has faith in his faithful daughter, like a Lear for his Cordelia.  He can wait and brave the cold and desolation in the faith that his daughter will ultimately rescue him. Even the sequences of strangers trying to help the old man are to no avail—the old man has faith in his daughter.  He is convinced that the true love resides is in his daughter’s heart, a love stronger than that of well meaning strangers. The old man not only refuses food and shelter but also urinates unwittingly while sitting on a park bench in the cold winter night and wants someone to clean him up, possibly the way his daughter would have done if he had done this in his daughter’s apartment. The director Plá’s ability to capture these feelings in a lonely cold urban landscape makes The Delay a major cinematic work of the year.

Unlike Haneke’s Amour, which had top class actors for Haneke to manipulate, director Plá had only actress Roxano Blanco (playing the lead role of Maria) who was a professional actor. Maria’s father, Augustin, is played by a first time actor Carlos Vallarino. Perhaps Mr Vallarino’s lack of confidence in front of the camera helped in portraying the forgetful and genial old man in the evening of his life. It is not surprising that some of the awards at minor festivals for this film have gone to Ms Blanco (at the Biarritz Latin American Film Festival) and to Mr Vallarino (at the Hamptons International Film Festival).  The more significant awards the film has picked up include the Celebrate Age Prize at the Mumbai International Film Festival, the Ecumenical Jury Prize at the Berlin Film Festival 2012, and the Best Director Award at the Pune Film Festival 2013–all deservedly for Rodrigo Plá—and the Best Screenplay Award for Laura Santullo at the Lima Latin American Film Festival. The spectrum of awards won on three different continents by this amazing little movie could not have accentuated its inherent strengths any better. It is a lovely counterpoint to Amour “sung” visually in a different style to highlight the sufferings of the elderly and the travails of those who try to ameliorate their pitiable condition.

P.S. La Demora (The Delay) is one of the top 10 films of 2012 for the author. It was also Uruguay's official submission to the Oscars 2013.

1 comment :

Unknown said...

This looks and sounds like it could crack my top 10 as well. I'm kicking myself for missing it at the local festival last fall.