‘Paula’: San Sebastian Review

Newcomer Denise Labatte plays the eponymous maid in Eugenio Canevari’s 64-minute Argentina-Spain co-production.

Latest in a seemingly endless line of films about middle-class south American families and their underpaid domestic help, Eugenio Canevari‘s Paula is so concentrated and accomplished that it easily transcends its hackneyed subject-matter. A quietly excellent mid-lengther that’s strongly reminiscent of the internationally-acclaimed features by Canevari’s countrywoman Lucrecia Martel, it deserves ample festival exposure despite its unorthodox 64-minute duration and marks out Canevari as a writer-director of high promise.  

Premiering in San Sebastian´s New Directors competition, worth a cool $50,000 to the winner, this Argentina-Spain co-production pivots on its eponymous heroine’s desperate attempts to scrape together a much smaller sum: 8,000 pesetas, roughly $850. This is the cost of an abortion — illegal under most circumstances in this Catholic country — which she requires after conceiving with her now ex-boyfriend Berna (Bernardo Calabia). Her well-heeled employer Estefi (Estefania Blaiotta) is as responsive to Paula´s desperate request for an advance as she is attentive to her own three children, whom she regards as a noisy impediment to enjoying poolside relaxation.

The Bottom Line

Outstanding mid-lengther heralds the latest notable discovery from Latin America.

And that’s about it, in a film which is much more concerned with character, atmosphere and quotidian verisimilitude than it is about plot. Adhering closely to the approved international art-cinema modus operandi, Canevari favors pregnant pauses and significant looks over dialogue. Every word and gesture is therefore freighted with significance, but instead of the ponderousness and artifice which inexperienced film-makers often end up with, Paula is instead a superbly compact and efficient miniature which consistently conveys the impression of casually eavesdropping on real lives, real places — it was shot near the city of Pergamino, a leafy corner of Buenos Aires province. 

Based in Barcelona since 2008, 30-year-old Canevari works with largely unknown collaborators on both sides of the camera and assembles his delicate chain with no weak links. Having used 35mm for his 2013 short Gorilla Dance, winner of two awards at Sitges, he now makes a smooth transition to digital — cinematographer Matias Castillo crafting classily limpid images on what was evidently a limited budget. From the very first shots, of rainy fields and mongrels napping on trash-dumps, with the camera either extremely slowly zooming in or extremely slowly zooming out, it’s palpably evident that we’re in very safe and confident hands. 

And the abrupt ending, as supervised by editor Didac Palou, is a textbook example of how minimal restraint can deliver disproportionate impact. How refreshing it is to find a film which runs just the right length for the story it tells, which avoids the temptations of pointless protraction and focuses so squarely on a protagonist´s minutely-observed situation, while simultaneously displaying awareness of and engagement with the world beyond the frame.  

Production companies: Mama Hungara, El Dedo en el Ojo

Cast: Denise Labbate, Estefania Blaiotta, Pablo Bocanera, Nazareno Gerde

Director / Screenwriter: Eugenio Canevari

Producers: Uriel Wisnia, Felipe Yaryura

Cinematographer: Matias ‘Kasty Castillo

Production designer / Costume designer: Gabriela Sorbi

Editor: Didac Palou

Sales: Mama Hungara, Buenos Aires

No Rating, 64 minutes