Film review: An appreciation of the minimalist beauty of ‘Las Acacias’

November 9, 2012

Sometimes a drama need not divert into histrionics to be moving. Las Acacias has a sublime quality that quietly charms with the most minimal of drama and sparest of cinematic techniques. With his debut, award-winning feature*, Argentine director Pablo Giorgelli presents a film that takes its time and subverts the need for heavy-handed personal conflict to create the subtlest of love stories.

Las Acacias follows Rubén (Germán de Silva), a truck driver hauling tree trunks from the jungles of Paraguay to Argentina’s capital city of Buenos Aires. After the film spends 10 minutes with no dialogue following Rubén driving alone in his truck, sipping mate and stopping at a truck stop to wash his armpits and face, he meets someone who will throw a loop into his usual route. On this fateful day, he is to transport a relative of his boss’ housekeeper, Jacinta (Hebe Duarte), and she has brought along her 8-month old baby, Anahí (Nayra Calle Mamani). “Is the baby yours?” Rubén asks, casually puffing on a cigarette when Jacinta approaches with the baby in her arms.

“Yes, she’s my daughter,” she says.

“Fernando didn’t mention a baby,” Rubén says, taking another drag on his cigarette.

“I told Mr. Fernando I was travelling with my daughter.”

Their exchange is casual, as if someone forgot some little detail in the deal. Maybe Rubén missed the mention of the baby or Fernando forgot to tell him about the baby or Jacinta did not specify to Fernando her daughter was an infant. The tension that arises feels slight and real. During the road trip, Rubén often glances over at the baby as she stares back with a smile that seems to melt the perpetually frowning man. The infant’s fresh, round face and large curious eyes present a dichotomy to his gray stubble and wrinkles. When he took his bath in the sink earlier, a huge scar from his left shoulder down his back reveals Rubén as a man with a painful past. We don’t have to know what happened, but as the film unfolds, his personal scars will also casually arise.

Giorgelli, who also wrote the film’s screenplay with Salvador Roselli, is not concerned with revealing mysterious pasts. Instead, he indulges in the sustained, but pregnant moments of quiet. When Anahí begins to fuss after Rubén takes a couple of puffs from a cigarette at the start of their drive, he tosses the cig out of the window. “Gracias,” says the mother who never asked him not to smoke to begin with. However, Anahí will not stop crying, and he gets quietly annoyed when Jacinta has to repeat “She’s hungry,” and they must stop for a warm bottle of milk. After a cut to the interior of the restaurant, they sit in silence, as Anahí suckles on the bottle. Time passes only through the cuts in the film and switches to different, sustained, straight-ahead angles. Jacinta never apologizes for any perceived inconvenience. When she disappears with the baby to the bathroom, Rubén asks the girl at the restaurant’s counter if she sells bus tickets. After Jacinta re-emerges from the bathroom, he drops the bus conversation. It is one of only a few moments of discrete tension that arises in the film.

Though the film is spare in its dialogue, its brisk, 85-minute pace never drags. María Astrauskas edits the film with a discreet rhythm that never betrays the passage of time but never allows the camera to linger so much to detract from mundane images of the dusty road. The actors remain mostly silently, exchanging glances loaded with genuine interest. Giorgelli knows how to harness the power of the child’s innocence in the purest of forms, maintaining distant long shots from Rubén’s perspective, avoiding any quick, indulgent close-ups. The child behaves as a child does, allowing the viewer to contemplate the sublime innocence of that child. For most of the film, the sun infuses a beautiful orange glow over the proceedings. Though the truck and its stops along the way are often dusty and worn, the film never seems to present a decrepit atmosphere of the lower class. The scenery never appears dirty, but earthy and real. The two actors have the appearance of down-to-earth people and never exude stagey, over-dressed sex appeal or appear out of place.

The film also has no music whatsoever, within the action or outside of it as mood modification (what film people know as both diegetic and extra-diegetic music). If there is any musicality on the soundtrack, it comes from the truck’s engine. The vehicle’s rumble phases through tonal shifts as Rubén maneuvers through the gears. The sound of the truck engine and the shifting of the transmission offers the only score to the action, and it suits the mood of this travelogue through South America’s spare countryside as well as anything else could have— maybe even better.

As the film progresses, little morsels of information come out between the travelers, as the child provides the objectification of innocence. Though she says nothing, and is probably minimally directed, she embodies the purity of how all human beings begin, open to everything and caring for nothing except food and company. Neither ideologies nor existentialist explications have a place in this truck cab. The only mystery that arises is the bond that forms so unquestionably between the truck driver and the young mother and her child. It grows at a gradual pace, from the purest of places, like the subtle flower that inspired the film’s title. Las Acacias has only the slightest of tension but remains full of the most minimal of soulful understanding.

Hans Morgenstern

Trailer (Note: the amount of edits in the preview below belies the quiet pacing of Las Acacias, and is not representative of the film’s true tone):

*It deservedly won the Camera d’Or for the best first feature at Cannes in 2011.

Las acacias is not rated (nothing about it should be offensive), is in Spanish with English subtitles and runs 85 min. It plays exclusively in South Florida this Friday, Nov. 9, at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, which provided a DVD screener for the purposes of this review.

Update: the film returns to Miami for a short run at the Tower Theater beginning Dec. 21.

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

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