Sunday, September 15, 2013

Penumbra (2011)

Once a year, lawyer Marga (Cristina Brondo) has to leave her native Spain for Argentina for work reasons. It's quite horrible for her, for she hates Argentina, Argentinians, the poor, and poor Argentinians, particularly when any of these people aren't acting properly servile towards here. Not to put too fine a point on it, but she's a bit of a prick.

While she's in Argentina, Marga also attempts to rent out a rather run-down apartment she owns. Things don't go well with it. First, the real-estate agent doesn't appear when and where he's supposed to appear, then she finds him, a guy named Jorge (Berta Muniz), rummaging around in front of the apartment door, and acting rather strangely. However, on the positive side, Jorge can offer a client willing to rent the apartment for a preposterous amount of money.

The only problem is that the deal has to be closed on the very same day. Jorge and Marga only have to wait in the apartment until the mysterious client appears. From here on out, Marga's day gets worse and more bizarre by the minute. She tangles with homeless and the police, kills a poor helpless fish and telephonically deals with her married lover and scheming colleagues. All the while, more and more of Jorge's colleagues arrive at the apartment, all of them acting exceedingly strange, increasingly bordering on threatening. Why, it might even come to a point when our unpleasant heroine will have to fight for her life.

Adrián García Bogliano's Penumbra (so called because it takes place before and during a solar eclipse) is a pretty perfect example of how you can take a little plot, a lot of weirdness, and a dark sense of humour and turn them into a fantastic film by virtue of absolute concentration. While the film's pacing and structure might seem slow and loose to a certain type of viewer, Bogliano's film is actually a master class in pacing and tightness, where every scene escalates the dramatic stakes and/or prepares a pay-off further down in Marga's increasingly disordered day where everything becomes stranger to her the closer the solar eclipse comes.

Bogliano makes much out of the handful of sets and locations the film takes place in, providing the audience not just with a sense of place in the more abstract meaning of the phrase, but also managing to impress upon us how the handful of places hang together geographically. The latter is particularly important to understand to be able share in Marga's experience of slowly running out of room to manoeuvre in - in a very real as well as in a metaphorical manner.

Marga, as note-perfectly played by Cristina Brondo (like other members of the cast an actress with quite a bit of TV experience), is an interesting central character too. She is, obviously, absolutely vile (though the film does subtly and not so subtly suggests reasons for her unpleasant character), and still, at least from a certain point in the plot on, there's little of a feeling that what she experiences are her just deserts. While the film has a bit of fun with letting her suffer and seeing her reaction to her very ordered life breaking down, there's also a sense of compassion on display I found surprising, as well as a certain relish in letting her be as unpleasant as she is.

The compassion with Marga on display rubs strangely against the sense of capital-W weirdness running through the movie. The Weird (here represented by the increasingly insane way everyone around Marga acts, and by what we learn of what the gang of real estate agents actually wants, as well as what happens with through these plans) and more human compassion aren't regular travelling companions, but the way Bogliano handles both, it's clear they can be when they are in the right hands.

Going by the quality of Penumbra, I really have to hunt down some of Bogliano's earlier movies, which are supposed to be quite a bit more violent (well, there is a decapitation here), and whose screenshots look a bit more like your typical piece of "indie horror" where this one has more of a proper old-fashioned movie look. I am quite looking forward to finding out if the striking sense for rigorous visual composition on display in Penumbra is something Bogliano slowly acquired over the years, something that just suddenly appeared, or something he always had.

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