CIFF40: "Everything, Nothing": Paulina (2015)

The first scene of Paulina is done by director Santiago Mitre and cinematographer Gustavo Biazzi in one unbroken shot, as the title character explains to her father Fernando, a respected and powerful judge, why she is dropping out of her Ph.D. program in law in order to teach in a pilot program for a rural Argentine school. "Explain" might not be the right word-- it's an argument that takes the form of exchanged justifications from both characters. Paulina, self-righteous in her theoretical certainties about social justice, faces off against a parent who's equally sure that his realpolitik cynicism is something his daughter will learn in time (the dialogue by Mitre and co-writer Mariano Llinas does a nice job of weaving both father and daughter's respective (and unacknowledged) privilege into their face-off). Filming it in a single take creates both tension and irony: even as the characters discuss their differences, and Paulina longs to literally break away, the staging emphasizes an inescapable bond between them. The remainder of Paulina will be about the limits of that bond--physical, emotional moral, political--and how far the connections and beliefs laid out in the movie's first five minutes can be stretched in the face of violation and trauma.

Loosely based on the 1960 Argentinian film La Patota, and winner of both the Nespresso Grand Prize and the FIPRESCI Prize at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, Paulina derives much of its power from what remains unsaid after this dialogue-rich opening.

Paulina goes to teach in the village, framed in long shots of orange and yellow, pink and brown and green, against a countryside whose beauty can also feel enveloping and claustrophobic. She struggles to connect with students who view her (not unfairly) as a naive outsider (and whom, a colleague points out, she tends to view as objects of pity or care). One night, riding a friend's motorcycle home from an evening of pleasantly drunk conversation, she is attacked and raped by a gang of young men, some of whom are students in her class. The rest of the film is about the fall-out from this violence, and way it both alters and reinforces certain beliefs and relationships.

Sitting in the darkened theater, I scrawled "ambivalent certainties" in my notepad, and I think that works as an apt description of the gaps and tensions in Paulina, how both the characters and the film itself frame and shape their perceptions of what's happening to and around them. Close-ups abound, but there's no release in the cuts from long or medium shots to the faces. The tight framing and matte expressions are barriers as much as gateways to deeper understanding; they create a tension and paranoia; there's always a question of the ambiguity of what people are thinking in close-ups, what they're not saying, what they're holding back.

The uncertainty generated by the framing is further enhanced by the multiple shifts in both time and perspective within the narrative: Mitre's insistence on a naturalistic shooting style allows him to play with temporal space in a manner that's unsettling, as scenes that initially seem to be occurring in the present are revealed to be flashbacks or flash-forwards. The "stories within stories" sensibility that arises from these shifts allows Mitre to play with complex and unresolved notions of memory and remembrance, the gaps or misreadings that are generated not only out of deliberate acts of violence, but well-intended rituals of recording (sitting in a police station, her father blurrily waiting in the background, a shaken Paulina tries to recount the details of her rape to a police officer wedded to the bureaucratic forms he has to fill out: "We'll say it was dawn," he suggests, when Paulina cannot give him an exact time for when the attack occurred).

The film's floating perspectives also create unresolved questions of knowledge and voice. Following the opening dialogue between Paulina and Fernando, the film seems to be framed by Paulina's recounting of her experiences to her therapist.  But if that's true, how do we account for the flashback moments with her father, or the rapist Ciro, of which Paulina could have no knowledge? These breaks from a set structure are, by the nature of the movie's naturalistic shooting and editing, interpolated into Paulina's narrative, but they also function as breaks, places where clarity of perspective is lost.

Subtle, horrifying visual grace notes run throughout: Paulina in bed, the tight, horizontal framing and dark lighting making it look like she's been buried alive; the way Mitre emphasizes a right-facing profile in Paulina's close-ups when she first arrives at the village, then a left-facing profile or series of overhead shots after her attack, as if the world's been flipped;  small touches of costuming and make-up, how Paulina's hair is pulled back early on in the movie, then slowly falls around her temples as the film progresses; the classroom scenes, where the student bodies crowding the middle and edges of the frame in the beginning recur after Paulina's rape, but with a darker edge (student's heads cut off so we just see the tops of their heads, like de-personalized, potential attackers); scenes shot through car windshields, providing another ironically "transparent" visual frame. There's a constant pull toward vision/framing/policing as metaphors for control, the body, knowledge, the passage of time. We're always aware that what we see or know (visually, narratively) is always just a piece of an unseen whole.

The impact of this stylistic strategy--both a critique and perhaps an unintentional endorsement of its characters' insistence on maintaining a theory in the face of experience--rests of the strength of the two lead performances. As Paulina, Dolores Fonzi skillfully negotiates her character's shifting emotions within various time frames, finding power and expressiveness in the bite of a lip or the tilt of a hip: in a screenplay that purposely leaves much of Paulina's motivation unsaid, these tiny gestures express volumes. As her father, Oscar Martinez has the more verbose role-- his constant questioning of what's happening makes him as much an audience surrogate as Paulina is--but that's also a potential trap: it is Fernando's tendency to hide behind words that has driven his daughter away, and it is Martinez's charisma and sad face that make him both empathetic and terrifying.

Paulina isn't a perfect film-- I found the recourse to hand-held shots a bit on-the-nose at time, as was the blackout frame after Paulina's rape. While much of the film is gripping, and its unwillingness to resolve its contradictions admirable, there were times when its purposeful inertia felt a bit problematic in relation to the violence its narrative was exploring. But there's much to admire in its layered politics and richly ironic visuals, and I hope it registers as a compliment to its general effectiveness that I felt sympathetic to one character's cry towards the end: "Enough please, I can't take anymore."


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