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Santiago Loza’s La Paz: you used to smile that way

Beatriz Bernabé and Lisandro Rodríguez in a scene from Santiago Loza’s movie La Paz.
By Julio Nakamurakare
Herald Staff

BAFICI winner is a melancholy meditation on the past, the present, and the future

Film review

Filmmaker-playwright-stage director Santiago Loza, who made his directorial début with the beautiful, heart-wrenching Extraño (2003) and went on to rise to international acclaim with Cuatro mujeres descalzas (2004), Ártico (2008), Rosa patria (2008), La invención de la carne (2009) and Los labios (2010) once again proves his fine mettle and gift for articulate, moving storytelling with the BAFICI winner La Paz (2013).

To anyone familiar with Loza’s brief filmography (brief in quantitative terms, but long on raw emotional power and intensity), La Paz will come as no surprise as regards characters, subject matter and storyline development. Described by Loza himself as “transparent, with a certain amount of humour and tenderness,” La Paz, just like the searing La invención de la carne, might as well have been called Los ojos, because it’s the emotionless gaze of late twentysomething Liso (Lisandro Rodríguez) the camera focuses on as La Paz’s opening credits start to roll. Eyes, as convention will have it, are a window into a person’s soul, and Liso’s eyes are no exception: he has this vacant stare which, in a different context, could be mistaken for aloofness. As the camera zooms out to reveal Liso’s body, the fragility of his carnality is fully revealed for what it really is: a young man rendered infantile by his parents’ overprotection and, as a result, a person whose numbness shields him from the outer world.

Loza’s La Paz — with a less cryptic title than his masterly Ártico, with a geographical reference which, apparently, is completely unrelated and unrelatable to the actual story — is both explicit and ellyptic, if such a contradiction is possible. Contemplative in nature, Liso’s story — out from psychiatric rehab, back home to rich parents who do care but find themselves unable to help the heavily medicated, mentally and spiritually lost son — is linear, true, but in an unpredictable fashion because it moves in short leaps formatted as episodes, each clearly marked with a self-explanatory intertitle.

Starting with the peacefully descriptive El jardín (The garden), Loza draws the background against which the handful of characters in the film will move: Liso, his parents (Andrea Strenitz and Ricardo Félix), and Sonia, the family’s Bolivian maid.

As stereotype will have it, Sonia, like most people from the altiplano immense plateau, is not given to words, but whenever she does speak her words, uttered in a low voice and with a harmonious cadence, she appeases whoever cares to listen. Liso does listen. Furthermore, he finds comfort and solace in Sonia’s wisdom, in her soothing words, in Sonia’s company to his medicated solitude.

The next episode (whimsically “split,” because there is a seamless continuum and no sense of autonomy in each story), is stringently titled La moto (The motorcycle). It has a circular structure which, far-fetched as it may sound, brings to mind Korean master filmmaker Tsai Ming-lian’s terrifyingly beautiful He Liu (The River, 1997).

While in The River the angst-filled, working class teen drifter Xiao-kang scooted around the desolate streets of a purposefully marginal Seoul, in La Paz it is Liso who, like a spoiled child, receives a motorcycle as some sort of comeback present from his parents and soon finds himself attached to the motor vehicle as though it were the nexus (the only one) between his painfully disconnected soul and the few people he bonds with.

It’s a beautiful ride, overall.

Once again, it’s Sonia’s tranquil approach that slows down the breakneck speed at which a motorcycle normally moves. “We’ll go slow, at 50 kms per hour,” Liso explains, inviting her to climb back on board for a short ride. Sonia agrees upon the condition that they make it 25 kms per hour.

In this sense, La moto condenses one of La Paz’s key motifs: the tranquility of a smooth ride, the peace of mind needed to strike a balance in lives otherwise lived in speedy traffic. La Paz, in keeping with the extremely simple semantic analogy with its title, moves at the pace of Liso’s slow recovery and in synch with his psychological and emotional needs.

Lisandro Rodríguez’s performance as the emotionally scarred Liso is fittingly absent, reflecting his character’s sense of loss, his distress, the almost religious devotion with which he unpacks, out of a tattered cardboard box, the toys he used to play with as a child, putting them away like the precious past they stand for. There is anguish in Liso’s loss, and there is corporeal and verbal comfort in the words softly spoken by Sonia.

Though never lost in reverie, Sonia lives the present for what it is: an instance in the brevity of life. It’s not that, secretly, Sonia longs for her loved Bolivia.

Her forced migration to Argentina for economic reasons is viewed as inevitable but reversible with the passing of time and patience. As played with the right acumen by Fidelia Batallanos Michel, Sonia is about Liso’s only tangible link with reality and someone to fall back on when his agony and misery become unbearable.

Batallanos Michel’s Sonia has been drawn into the script as an intermittent yet permanent force, invisible but palpably strong at the same time. Sonia, the character she plays with comforting relief, is most likely a reflection of her own true-life persona, so vivid is Sonia’s connection with life.

Liso’s mother (Andrea Strenitz) could have been easily drawn as a stereotype — an upper class BA lady with a lean, tan, young girl’s body and a demeanour to match. Loza, however, intelligently turns her into a loving mother who really cares for her only child’s suffering, to the extent of protecting him in a childish, maternal manner more appropriate for the relationship between a young mother and her child.

Perhaps the only cliched character in La Paz is Liso’s father (Ricardo Félix), who has the boy learn how to shoot a gun instead of encouraging the healthier side of his strange proclivity to disattach himself from society, with the sole exception of his mother, his grandmother (Beatriz Bernabé), and Sonia, the family maid.

Overflowing with the sadness of loss, Loza’s La Paz oozes the vital intensity and melancholy of lives lived without great expectations, only with a glimmer of hope for a brighter tomorrow, with the secret knowledge that happiness and fulfillment lie a few metres ahead, regardless of the distance between what you call home out of never quite raisonné habit, and the geographically removed place where you find true solace and peace.

La Paz, in a few words.

Production notes

La Paz. Argentina, 2013. Written and directed by: Santiago Loza. Cinematography: Iván Fund. Editing: Valeria Otheguy, Lorena Moriconi. Music: Javier Ntaca. With: Lisandro Rodríguez, Andrea Strenitz, Fidelia Batallanos Michel, Ricardo Félix, Beatriz Bernabé. Distributed by: Frutacine. NR. Running time: 73 minutes.

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