Here’s a depressing proposition: On the one hand, we have Latin America’s biggest film star, the young, handsome, multilingual, and (lest the inferiority complex become too crushing) short Gael Garcia Bernal. He is in The Past, a new Argentinean movie with beautiful women who can’t help but throw themselves at him, and he features in at least three great sex scenes. On the other, there is the hapless student reviewer who arrives at the Ibero-Latin-American Festivalissimo barely on time, forgets his glasses, and is ushered in only to find out that the movie doesn’t have subtitles. So who has a better time? The answer is me, but only because this movie must have been even more painful to make than to sit through.
The evening began well. Ten minutes before showtime, a boisterous queue snaked up from Cinema du Parc’s doors nearly all the way to the far-off Uniprix. Passions were running high. Excited chatter about Gael echoed in three languages. People were dissuaded from cutting the line by a patrolling mustachioed septuagenarian with an open shirt and a gold chain. This, it turned out, was the theatre’s manager, Roland Smith. With an air of growing contentment, we eventually entered, passing an empanadas y churros stand on the way. It would have taken a cold heart not to smile at the whistles and cheers that greeted Garcia Bernal’s name during the opening credits.
Those sounds were soon replaced, however, by a dull buzz of confusion. Garcia Bernal was on screen, but where were the subtitles? And, irony of ironies, was he really playing a translator making his living by writing film subtitles? The non-Spanish segment of the audience became increasingly perturbed until 15 minutes in, when the film abruptly cut out. The lights came on, and an organizer came in to explain that the print had not been previously viewed and offered the discontented their money back. I stuck around though and, aided by the whisperings of a helpful Chilean woman, slowly pieced together the elements of the movie.
Rimini (Garcia Bernal) ends his marriage of twelve years to Sofia (Analia Couceyro, more appealing than her underwritten role would suggest), and moves into a beautiful Buenos Aires apartment. He proceeds to romance two other women, one an inexplicably high-strung model and the other his seductively professional translating colleague. He goes to clubs, snorts a lot of cocaine, carries on a fantastic (and graphically depicted) sex life, and, in short, seems to be having a great time. But his past, in the shape of the increasingly deranged and intrusive Sofia, keeps creeping back into his life.
It is always daring to place a deeply unsympathetic character at the centre of the audience’s attention: done well, it can easily be either marvellous fun or startling enough to give the viewers an interesting jolt. But the makers of The Past do not seem to realize what a lousy human being their hero is. Devoid of both a sense of humour and any self-awareness, Rimini’s continual disregard for his girlfriends is surpassed only by one’s amazement that they should still find him attractive. Caring for this empty individual, the other characters soon become equally ridiculous, and the suspense in his relationships ebbs away. The moment when Sofia briefly steals Rimini’s newborn baby, which should feel like a kick in the gut, passes by with barely a whimper.
If the centre does not hold, things soon start to fall apart. Poor Garcia Bernal struggles gamely enough to gloss over The Past’s glaring inconsistencies, but he has the dazed expression of a man who wishes he was still playing Che Guevara. For starters, Rimini’s cocaine habit rears its ugly head only to disappear without any explanation a third of the way through the film. Likewise, no indication is provided when leaps in time occur, leaving the audience to wonder why only 10 seconds after their first hook-up, Rimini’s translator girlfriend undergoes a caesarean section. The less said about the central twist – an attack of amnesia – the better. But we must note veteran director Hector Babenco’s ability to provide a resolution even more baffling than the plot turn’s confused introduction.
At the end, Rimini returns to Sofia for a one-night stand, the implication being that he finally puts his troubled past to bed. The reality is that the only people who should feel more abused and betrayed than Sofia are the long-suffering audience.
The Past plays as part of Festivalissimo at 7 p.m., March 25 at at Cinema du Parc (3575 Parc). Visit cinemaduparc.com for more information.