[original title: Como funcionan casi todas las cosas]
Celine is a young woman leading a very modest and very uneventful life in some nowhere-place in Argentina. Her mother left the family many years ago when Celine was still a toddler, and recently her father got very ill and needs a lot of care now.
Celine works as a toll-booth operator on a road that no-one uses anymore since a better road has been built a few miles away. And she occasionally earns a few additional bucks as a singer.
Change comes to her life and she decides to switch jobs to become a travelling saleswoman. The routine car trip she is meant to take with a colleague in order to sell their merchandise develops much differently than expected and Celine suddenly has to question things she thought she knew about herself and her life.
As you might see from this plot summary, How Most Things Work has elements of a road movie, as well as elements of a coming-of-age film. It is also a portrayal of life in remote provincial Argentina (similar to – but not as “colourful” as – The Distinguished Citizen). The film has a strong female protagonists, and at a recent festival talk director (and co-writer) Fernando Salem said he prefers female protagonists as they are more complex, and less linear and straightforward than male characters.
The film is a gentle portrayal of Celine and her environment. And as Celine finds herself on an unexpected journey of self-discovery, the film also circles around questions concerning destiny and (im)probability. The film employs a number of surreal elements which work as a sort of camouflage for the (im)probabilities and which at the same time are quasi-Brechtian estrangement effects. These elements are very smoothly inserted into the film – nothing too jarring, nothing that takes you out of the film. Due to this fine balance, these elements enhance and support the film instead of disturbing it.
The film’s ending is also a balancing act. It is as if the ending softly catches the story and brings it gently to a close. Salem knows how important it was for the film (because of its special nature and “searching” character) to get this ending exactly right, and he and his co-writer Esteban Garelli worked on the ending a lot.
While not being an outright comedy, the film has a subtle and slightly surreal humour to it. It also has very good locations and solid cinematography. One of the film’s strongest elements is its cast. Most of them are seasoned theatre actors, but the leading actress, Verónica Gerez, is an acting novice. It took her some time to get acclimated to acting, and Salem spent a whole year meeting up with her now and again in order for her to understand his vision and for him to understand what she could bring to the role. The end result is absolutely perfect.
The care Salem took in the casting process mirrors the care he took with the script. He and Garelli re-worked the script again and again, as I mentioned earlier regarding the film’s ending. All in all the entire process took them nine years, a length of time that Salem jokingly puts down to incompetence, but which reflects the fact that, as independent filmmakers, they had to spend their days working on projects that actually result in a pay-check.
Speaking of jobs: as a young man, Salem actually worked as a travelling sales-man himself on occasion. An experience that clearly enriched the film. Salem also took some time out in order to travel through provincial Argentina by car, meeting all kinds of people who inspired the script.
As far as style and tone are concerned, Salem mentions a myriad of films that inspired him, from the films of Woody Allen and Emir Kusturica to Punch-Drunk Love, Buffalo ’66, and Paris, Texas.
With How Most Things Work, Fernando Salem has produced a very well-rounded film that gets a lot of things right that could easily have gone wrong. As mentioned, there are many elements that needed to be presented in exactly the right balance, and through their dedication and attention to detail, Salem and Garelli have hit the right note in all those cases.
Although this is definitely an arthouse film, it is neither “difficult” nor “artsy”. It is a loving, slow-paced journey of discovery, and ultimately more captivating than Argentina’s Oscar submission, The Distinguished Citizen (which is the funnier and more “eventful” film of the two).
I would rate How Most Things Work at about 8 out of 10, and can universally recommend it to all who are not put off by a slow pace. My guess, though, is that it will do better with female audiences than with male audiences.