The Watchman (2017)

[original title: El hombre que cuida]

 

Juan lives in a small coastal town in the Dominican Republic, Palmar de Ocoa. But in spite of the seemingly close-knit community and in spite of having relatives in the town, Juan seldomly mingles. He lives a somewhat secluded life as a caretaker of a remote, lavish beach house – looking after it for its rich owners who only occasionally drop by. He is an earnest, fastidious young man, who takes his job rather seriously. Juan may not always have been this much of a recluse; things seem to have gotten worse since a crisis has befallen his private life.
The other locals of Palmar look down on Juan because he is not independent, but something like a paid slave. They cannot understand why he stays in his small ramshackle room on the estate and never uses the other rooms, never drinks his boss’s expensive liquors, etc. And they get mad at him when he chases them away from his boss’s private beach and dock, even if the owner is not home. While they may look down on Juan, they also secretly suspect he may be looking down on them, as they accuse him of behaving as if he owns the place.
One day, his boss’s son Rich arrives unannounced, bringing with him a friend as well as a girl they just picked up in town. Juan is at a loss. He tries to protect his boss’s property from the carelessness of the young visitors, but at the same time feels he owes Rich some degree of loyalty, as he is the owner’s son. As the short stay of these young people starts to spiral out of control, Juan’s loyalty is tested more than once.

 

Writer/director Alejandro Andújar, who is also a producer of this film, is not a blue-eyed newcomer fresh out of film-school. After studying film in Cuba, he spent some years making a living in the Dominican Republic (his native country) by writing screenplays for mainstream comedies, a genre that seems to have been booming in the country for a number of years now. This is one of the reasons why, for his first directing project, he wrote a screenplay which has a decidedly sad streak to it: he was looking for something a bit different. Still, The Watchman has some subtle, deadpan-comedic moments, and the merciless light the film shines on the Dominican Republic’s social ills has a number of satirical aspects. But Andújar stated that he deliberately left most of the comedic and satirical potential of the material untouched as this would not have been the film he wanted to make.

The film deals with three central inequalities in the Dominican Republic: gender, race, and class – with the latter two often going hand in hand. In highlighting these issues, Andújar is very careful not to be “lecturing”, and not to put blame for social ills on one group of people while presenting others as victims. There are no saints in this film, only sinners. Each character in this story is flawed (and broken) in their own way, even the upstanding Juan.

 

Thematically – as well as in its employment of minimalist elements (though very limited here) – The Watchman has similarities to Chile’s The Maid. The Watchman may mention “class” more overtly than The Maid, but that film’s central constellation also forms the basis of The Watchman’s plot: a servant whose job requires being physically close to their employers, while both sides are unsure how to deal with each other without the situation becoming awkward. All-in-all, however, The Watchman is in many ways the superior film, more enjoyable, more tightly-narrated, and with a more tangible, more relatable central character. With Juan, you mostly feel you roughly know what is going on in his head – something you never feel in The Maid. That is chiefly a writing and directing achievement, but is also helped by very good acting on part of Héctor Aníbal. The other central characters in this film are also portrayed very well by the cast (Paula Ferry, Héctor Medina, Yasser Michelén, and Julietta Rodriguez). Good locations/sets, fitting frame selections, and a nice soundtrack round off this well-made film.

Rating: 8 out of 10

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