The Desert Bride (2017)

[original title: La Novia del Desierto]

Teresa, an orphaned Chilean woman, arrived in Buenos Aires at age 20 to work as a live-in maid. For decades she has worked for the same family, managing the household and raising the family’s son, Rodrigo. Now, however, she is faced with the prospect of a great upheaval. Amidst Argentina’s economic woes, her employer is forced to downsize – she is selling her house and can no longer afford to pay Teresa. Rodrigo, now grown-up and married, is in no position to employ her either. But as – after decades of service – she is a valued and trusted employee, a plan is hatched to ship Teresa 1000 miles across Argentina in order to work for Rodrigo’s in-laws in San Juan.
For a woman in her mid-50s, a change of this magnitude is difficult to come to terms with – not to mention the arduous bus journey. Things take a turn for the worse when her bus breaks down and – amidst further complications – she finds herself stranded in some nowhere-place in the desert. Her encounter with the travelling trader “el Gringo”, who unlike her has never really put down roots anywhere and is living an entirely different kind of life, challenges her views about what “living” means and what to expect from life.

 

As is probably already evident from the plot description, this film – which has run at many festivals, including Cannes – is a quiet road movie. And it has all which you have come to expect from the best films of this genre, including a slow pace and outstanding cinematography. Together with the interesting characters, engaging story, and very short running time, the cinematography makes sure that the film’s slow pace never becomes tiresome.

 

At the centre are, of course, the performances of the two main characters, especially that of lead actress Paulina García (Gloria). Her talent for non-verbal acting is outstanding, and her face and facial expressions are easily worth a thousand words. Likewise, Claudio Rissi does an outstanding job as Gringo. Although we are (deliberately) not given a lot of actual facts about Gringo’s life, Rissi‘s performance makes you feel that you have a real person in front of you, shaped by 50-odd years of life.

Especially in the case of Gringo, but also in the case of Teresa and all the minor characters she meets on her journey, the excellent writing definitely supports the actors a great deal.

A minor supporting role which is left intentionally blank in terms of information and dialogue is that of Rodrigo. Martin Slipak gives a remarkable performance in this role, displaying Rodrigo’s love for Teresa and a whole host of other emotions through little gestures and body-language alone.

 

Next to the writing and the performances, the film’s most outstanding feature is its atmosphere. The filmmakers manage to create the atmosphere (and set the film’s tone) right from the very beginning, primarily based on the cinematography, the great sound design, and the film’s score.

A number of very impressive scenes are specifically designed to provide symbolic meaning and support the atmosphere at the same time. Shots of the empty house of Teresa’s former employer, robbed of its furniture and its inhabitants, is one of them. Another is a set in a bridal shop, while others are connected to pilgrimage sites.

The film’s director of photography, Sergio Armstrong (Neruda; No; The Maid), not only delivers beautiful landscape shots for this road movie, he also creates the best possible visual results in regard to these aforementioned, specifically-designed scenes.

 

With The Desert Bride, the two directors (Cecilia Atán & Valeria Pivato), who also wrote the screenplay together, are delivering a first-rate road-movie with little to no faults. This is all the more surprising as this film represents their feature film debut both as writers and as directors.

I am not happy with a scene or two, and some decisions that have been taken, especially concerning the film’s ending – but nearly all of this is a matter of personal taste. While the film’s ending might tempt me to rate this film at 7 out of 10, the truth is that the film’s near-perfection in nearly every single aspect does not allow for a rating lower than 8 out of 10.

 

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