23 Seconds (2014)

[original title: 23 Segundos]

 

Uruguayan drama 23 Seconds is a fairy tale, taking the story of a simple and at times tragic life and turning it into something more.

The hero of the story, 33-year-old Emiliano, has limited mental faculties and therefore has to live with his mother. His medical condition is intentionally never mentioned or defined in the film, just as the location of the film is never actually defined. (According to the director, both is meant to add to the fairy-tale atmosphere.) Just think of Emiliano in terms of the outdated phrase “mentally retarded” and it will give you a pretty good idea.
Emiliano spends his days cleaning windshields, but as he is bullied away by other cleaners from the more frequented and profitable intersections, this activity is more a means to keep him busy than to really earn a living. In his spare time he tends to his toy car collection or he hangs out at the neighbourhood garage and watches the mechanics at work.
This quiet, uneventful routine is one day interrupted by a botched robbery he witnesses whilst cleaning a windshield. This event propels him into action, and in the aftermath he performs several acts of heroism all of which make perfect sense to him, but not to anyone else, and so he receives little understanding and even less gratitude for these actions.

However, it becomes also clear that this young man has unfulfilled desires for intimacy, and thus 23 Seconds raises the same question as other films dealing with similar characters do, such as Patrick’s Day (2014), Le huitième jour (1996), or Yo, también (2009): does society accept the sexuality of those it has defined as “not normal”, and how does it react to their desires?

 

There is a lot of solid acting in this drama. Above all, however, towers the outstanding performance of Hugo Piccinini in the leading role – a performance that contributes a lot to the success of the film. Writer/director Dimitry Rudakov says he developed the character of Emiliano as well as the story as a whole specifically for Piccinini, and that certainly shows. Ukrainian emigré Rudakov collaborated with Piccinini and consulted him throughout the writing of the script. Rudakov also suggested that his Spanish is not 100% at the level where he as a writer would like it to be, so consulting native speakers like Piccinini probably helps making lines sound more natural (– not that I would know, since I don’t speak Spanish).

 

23 Seconds won the main award of the Mannheim-Heidelberg film festival, for being “a simple story of human dignity”, as the jury put it – and the jury also made special mention of Piccinini’s performance.

Remember that this is the director’s first feature film, so in some scenes the film feels a bit rough around the edges, but I would rate this film easily at or above 7.5 out of 10.

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