Since The King’s Movie won the best first film award at Venice more than 30 years ago, the films of Argentine Carlos Sorin have regularly made waves at Spanish-language fests across the globe without troubling international territories further. Unshowy, deceptively simple and always socially aware, Sorin’s oeuvre has consistently delivered high quality without regard to fashion, and the same can be said of Joel.
Simple in execution but complex in the issues it raises, this tale of adoption, integration and discrimination is straightforward, satisfying storytelling, rooted in the traditional values of a solid script and performances, and empathy. Sadly, it’s likely that Joel will only be seen in Spanish territories, but its wisdom, compassion and universality — it’s a tale that could take place anywhere, and probably does — suggest that it deserves wider exposure.
The child as outsider.
Piano teacher Cecilia (Victoria Almeida) and her forestry worker husband, Diego (Diego Gentile), have been living for a year in the small Patagonian village Tolhuin in Tierra del Fuego when Cecilia hears that their request for adoption has been granted. From the outset, Cecilia seems more enthusiastic about the new arrival, even after she hears that at 9, the child, Joel (Joel Noguera), is older than expected. “Our aim,” the adoption worker memorably reminds them, “is to find parents for the children, not children for the parents”.
Round-faced, shaggy-haired and for a long time unsmiling, monosyllabic and defiant in attitude, Joel was living with an uncle who’s now in prison, and spent the time since in an institution. Early scenes between the boy and his new parents are squirmingly awkward and anxious, and wonderfully summed up in one shot of the couple, back to camera, sitting in silence and wondering what they’ve taken on. When Joel finally delivers the merest half-smile, the relief is felt as much by the audience as the parents. “Shouldn’t I be happier?” Cecilia guiltily wonders.
The process of getting Joel into the local school is slow and painful, and once he’s in, he has problems adapting. First he steals a cellphone, and then the parents start discussing the bad influence he is having on their kids. “Our children are pure and live in a lovely town,” one mother complains. “Why should they have to put up with him?” From this point, the focus of the drama widens to include the hot-button issue of discrimination, as Cecilia is forced to choose between accepting Joel and his troubled, violent past or accepting the other parents’ prejudices against the outsider. It’s a moral dilemma that thousands of parents are forced to confront every day.
One of the script’s strengths is the swiftness and efficiency with which it paints a portrait of a small community early on. We get to meet ever-smiling Samuel (Juvenal Rodrigo Munoz Saez) and Virginia (Claudia Perez Hernandez), a religious couple with strong moral values who initially welcome Joel into their world but who go strangely quiet when the going gets tough for Cecilia; the school’s director, Ferreyra (Gustavo Daniele), who comes up with a face-saving but problematic solution to the issue; and Marta (Ana Katz, a fine director in her own right), another mother who alerts Cecilia to Joel’s issues at school. Through the years, Sorin has repeatedly displayed a strong sense of the dynamics at work in these isolated, conservative-minded pueblos.
Almeida is superb at the heart of the film, assailed from both inside and out by doubts that, only at the end, she is starting to learn how to handle. It’s a tougher journey she has embarked upon than she could ever have imagined, and Diego can only travel with her part of the way. Both performances are subtle and thoughtful, and their commitment to keeping it real wouldn’t look out of place in a film by the Dardenne brothers. With his default look of suspiciousness, Noguera, another nonpro whom Sorin took on after Noguera asked him for a bun in a cake shop, is superbly directed.
The cast mixes pros and nonpros fairly seamlessly; a parents’ meeting in which the participants are actually parents from a local school is shot through with some of the spontaneous electricity that we find scattered throughout the work of, say, Ken Loach. The piano-based score by Sorin’s son Carlos is appropriately melancholy.
Production companies: Guacamole Films, Mediabyte
Cast: Victoria Almeida, Diego Gentile, Joel Noguera, Gustavo Daniele, Emilce Festa, Juvenal Rodrigo Munoz Saez, Ana Katz
Director, screenwriter: Carlos Sorin
Producers: Juan Pablo Buscarini, Carlos Sorin, Julio Perez, Jose Ibanez
Director of photography: Ivan Gierasinchuck
Costume designer: Soledad Cancela
Editor: Mohamed Rajid
Composer: Nicolas Sorin
Sales: Guacamole Films