Argentine film The Desert Bride recalls the 1998’s Central Station. Both are melancholic road movies with a grand dame of South American acting at their hearts. In the case of Bride, it’s the always fascinating Paulina García (who Australian audiences may know from Gloria and Narcos) who enthralls right from the first scene.
García plays Teresa, a 50-something woman who has been the maid to a well-to-do family since she was 20. Her tenure there has ended and she is forced to travel cross country by bus to a new posting.
During a stop in the middle of nowhere, she is coerced to try on a garment by an insistent market vendor known as El Gringo (Claudio Rissi). A storm suddenly erupts and El Gringo hastily packs up his wares, unwittingly taking Teresa’s bag with him.
Teresa already had a harried, tightly coiled disposition, her pinched mouth, and small, searching eyes visibly carrying a lifetime of suppressed emotions and unfulfilled desires. Now the search for her bag is an unwanted obstacle to her arriving on time at her destination. Her job has always been her whole life, and her already interrupted career is at a standstill until she finds her bag.
After finally tracking down El Gringo, the two go in search at various locations, to find the elusive bag which becomes more of a metaphor for her stable, secure existence as the journey goes on. She’s forced to go out of her comfort zone, to meet new people. An interesting device that first-time directors Cecilia Atán and Valeria Pivato use is to have the camera behind Teresa when she enters a new environment. In these scenes the characters she meets are initially out of focus, as if her whole attention is on getting her bag back, and she doesn’t initially connect with these new acquaintances who are merely an impediment to that mission.
All the signs point to her and El Gringo becoming romantically linked. She has lived without love her whole life, and his obvious interest in her has her slowly coming out of her shell. But this isn’t your rote romance film, so don’t go expecting the Hollywood treatment here.
This is instead a thoroughly absorbing character study of an introverted, lonely woman at a cross road and re-evaluating her life. García is mesmerising, completely drawing us into her character, and Rissi slowly evolves his El Gringo from a dubious hustler to a fellow lonely soul searching for a meaningful connection.
Regular Pablo Larraín cinematographer Sergio Armstrong captures the dusty remoteness of the locale while Leo Sujatovich’s score hits the right balance of sombreness without ever being maudlin.
The result is a wonderfully observed character study that quietly sneaks under your skin.
The Desert Bride is screening at the Cine Latino Film Festival at Palace Cinemas
Richard Leathem @dickiegee