Recently, I had the chance to see Argentina’s submission for the nominee selection process for the 2017 Best Foreign Language Oscar category.
Daniel Mantovani left his home town Salas in Argentina when he was twenty years old, and in the forty years since he never returned once. Residing in Barcelona, he has become a world-renowned author, mostly writing novels that draw from his childhood in Salas. Honours upon honours are thrown at him, awards and libraries named after him, etc. Five years ago he received the Nobel Prize for literature, which he barely accepted as he thinks such events beneath him, and since then he has cancelled many more honours and awards. To be frank, Mantovani is a misanthropic and quite arrogant man. When he receives an invitation from the mayor of Salas, who wants to bestow on him the honour of “Distinguished Citizen” of the town, Mantovani is highly amused. But soon he comes to the decision that he will accept this invitation and return to Salas after all. This decision seem to be partly driven by curiosity; but also partly by the fact that he has not written anything substantial in years and so returning to the town that was the inspiration for his novels seems a good idea.
In Salas (734 kilometres from Buenos Aires, we are told), Mantovani has to confront some unresolved relationships from his past, as well as adapt to the much lower level of available luxuries and to the tastes of the town folk. In Barcelona he lives in a beautifully designed modern building full of books and tasteful interior design, and we see him sitting in an Eames Lounge Chair. In contrast, the welcome ceremonies in Salas as well as the gifts he receives from he locals are tasteless and tacky. The conflict between his refined taste (and openly displayed feeling of superiority) and the town’s tastelessness (and pride) come to a head when he is asked to judge paintings painted by local people.
This results in an increasingly bizarre and acrimonious atmosphere.
The Distinguished Citizen is a social satire about a culture clash that takes an in-depth look into the various ways in which the concept of “culture” is understood and used. It is not really clear who is criticised more, the provincial town folk or the arrogant writer. He says a lot of things that are true, but he is far from perfect himself (as he realises over the course of the story). It is here that the film has its weakness: it is not really clear what it is trying to tell us. And the ending does not really connect with the issues raised, nor does it provide closure for parts of the plot. Nevertheless, The Distinguished Citizen is a very enjoyable film with lots of humour and with lots of beautiful shots of this fictional town’s streets.
Among the film’s strong elements are the scenes in which Mantovani interacts with various locals. And it is the quality of the cast that helps these scenes to succeed. Oscar Martínez is the pillar of this film with his finely carved portrayal of the arrogant author. He is front and centre in this film, is in every single scene. There is hardly a second of screen time without him. He is surrounded by major and minor supporting characters which are all perfectly cast. Many of these roles demand a talent for subtle performances and dead-pan humour and the actors deliver every single time.
As I said, this Spanish-Argentinian co-production, which has won various awards in Venice, Valladolid and Haifa, is a very enjoyable film. It may be a tad too long at 2 hours – there are certain passages in the film that might have benefited from some tightening. But the film never bores you and it is always entertaining. Some connections are not as clear as they could have been, and such a lack of clarity also concerns the overall “aim” of this film (as mentioned above). As it stands, The Distinguished Citizen is a very decent comedy-drama, a social satire that deliberately descends into the absurd. Personally, I would rate it at about 7 out of 10.