In Sebastian Lelio’s fine-grained 2013 character portrait, Gloria, Paulina Garcia traced the rocky path to self-discovery of a Chilean divorcee struggling to find wholeness as a middle-aged single woman. In The Desert Bride, the gently seductive first feature from Cecilia Atan and Valeria Pivato, Garcia plays a mousy type who has never known much fulfillment, until an interlude in the rugged Argentinean hinterland liberates the spirit trapped within her. The spareness of both the physical and emotional landscapes yields something quite delicate in a film with the grace and economy of a satisfying short story.
While the marvelous Garcia is the heart of the movie, her unshowy performance strikes an exquisite balance with the more gregarious manner of Claudio Rissi in what’s largely a two-hander.
A captivating two-hander, as soothing as a desert breeze.
Even at a brief 78 minutes, it’s a film that takes its time, getting to know the self-effacing central character via the subtlest nuances, allowing her experiences room to breathe and resonate against the expansive landscapes. But the deliberate pacing pays off in an open-ended conclusion that quietly soars with possibility and renewal. Those uplifting elements should help steer this accomplished small-scale debut from festival slots onto specialized distribution radars.
Co-writer-directors Atan and Pivato clearly have made the most of their apprenticeship in crew roles for filmmakers like Juan Jose Campanella and Pablo Trapero, as well as in documentary, script supervision and short films. The confidence of their uncluttered storytelling is evident from the start, as is the intimate female gaze they bring to the drama, and the skill with which they harness a heady sense of place to inform a transformative personal journey. Enhancing the latter aspect is the handsomely composed widescreen cinematography of Sergio Armstrong, a regular collaborator of Pablo Larrain.
Keeping exposition on hold for later flashbacks elegantly woven into the developing story, the film opens with stranded passengers trekking on foot along a desert highway after a bird shattered the windscreen of the bus on which they were traveling. Arriving at a sanctuary town where pilgrims come to visit the shrine of a popular religious-folklore figure known as La Difunta Correa, the group is informed that a replacement bus won’t be along until morning.
Among them is Teresa (Garcia), a Chilean woman in her 50s who came to Buenos Aires to work as a maid more than three decades ago. We gradually learn that her parents died in an earthquake when she was young, and her entire adult life has been spent caring for someone else’s family, sublimating her own maternal desire into devotion to their now-grown-up son.
Her employers have treated her well, but apparent financial troubles have forced them to sell their house and let her go, finding her a new position with relatives across the country in San Juan, almost 700 miles away. A beautiful shot of Teresa blinking back silent tears in her monastic bedroom shows the apprehension with which she approaches this upheaval.
Back in the pilgrimage town, Teresa wanders the busy marketplace and gets talked into trying on a dress by a jovially persuasive stallholder who introduces himself as El Gringo (Rissi). But her distraction over a storm rapidly moving in causes her to leave her travel bag behind in his van, and before she realizes it, El Gringo has packed up for the night and driven off. She tracks him down the next day without too much difficulty, but finds no trace of her bag, and he confesses he probably unloaded it without noticing along with his merchandise at one of a number of stops.
What follows is a minor-key odyssey during which Teresa climbs aboard El Gringo’s van and goes from place to place in search of her belongings. But the real point is her gradual opening up under his coaxing.
Seemingly inconsequential moments like them climbing a rocky mound to take in the view, or him making a gift to her of a cute pair of red sneakers take on the significance of everyday magic. Over dinner with his friends, she laughs with unaccustomed ease at stories of their courtship and proposal, underscoring the foreignness of romance in her own life without laboring the point. And when it’s revealed that El Gringo hasn’t been entirely honest, the resulting clash gives way not to lasting rancor but to a new sense of serenity and resilience, painted across Garcia’s face in the loveliest of smiles. That it doesn’t end on a conventional romantic note makes the film all the more appealing.
The wispy story could almost be reduced to an anecdote. Yet in the leisurely flow of Andrea Chignoli’s edit, it’s imbued with gorgeous, undulating rhythms that pull you in to the point where the recovery of Teresa’s bag becomes secondary to the emergence of a woman capable of being an active participant in life, rather than hiding in the margins. Leo Sujatovich’s score, full of soft piano, guitar and strings, adds to the poignancy without veering too far into the sentimental.
The performances of both leads are measured but highly effective. Rissi brings an easygoing charm that El Gringo uses to draw Teresa out while still allowing the intensely private woman her own space. And Garcia traces that emergence with rich humanity, tapping into a well of warmth that Teresa appears always to have kept somewhat guarded. The film is another excellent vehicle — following Gloria and her first American screen work in Ira Sachs’ Little Men and the Netflix series Narcos — to shine a light on a remarkable talent.
Production companies: Ceibita Films, El Perro en la Luna
Cast: Paulina Garcia, Claudio Rissi
Director-screenwriters: Cecilia Atan, Valeria Pivato
Producers: Eva Lauria, Alejo Crisostomo
Director of photography: Sergio Armstrong
Production designer: Mariela Ripodas
Costume designers: Beatriz Di Benedetto, Jam Monti
Music: Leo Sujatovich
Editor: Andrea Chignoli
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard)
Sales: Cite Films