Have you ever found yourself rooting for a movie to be good, despite overwhelming evidence of the contrary? Have you ever found that, as an audience member, you are having an internal dialogue with the film you’re watching? And does that internal dialogue include lines such as “no, wait, why would you do that?” Whether it be due to regional pride, a particular affinity for somebody in the cast or crew, or simply wanting the story to be told in a compelling way, sometimes we’ll find ourselves acting as cheerleaders for a losing team, wincing with every missed goal opportunity.
That’s kind of how it feels to watch Perdida, Alejandro Montiel’s sometimes-gripping, often-flaccid misfire of a film. And it is those moments when the film actually grabs you and takes you to a place of excitement, intrigue and suspense when you actually fool yourself into believing for a moment that the film could take a turn for the positive. Unfortunately, after every little moment of greatness, a cavalcade of blandly disappointing moments will follow. This process repeats itself from the very first scene of the film up until its subdued shrug of a denouement.
Perdida came out earlier this year to moderate success in the Argentine box office (it didn’t exactly light the world on fire, but it also didn’t sink like the Titanic). Its international distribution rights were acquired by Netflix, and thus it is marketed internationally as a “Netflix Original”. Perhaps this is part of the reason I was rooting for it so hard — I want every Argentine “Netflix Original” to be good, because — for better or worse — as the most easily accessible pieces of Argentine filmmaking, they constitute a sort of calling card to the world. So far, the results haven’t been great.
Based on a novel by Florencia Etcheves, Perdida tells the story of Manuela (Luisana Lopilato), a young policewoman haunted by memories of her past. She is particularly affected by the unresolved disappearance of her best friend, Cornelia, from back when they were teenagers. Cornelia’s mother reaches out to her and convinces her to use her skills and resources as a policewoman to look into Cornelia’s disappearance again. With some hesitation, and putting herself in great professional and personal risk, Manuela decides to dive head-first into this incident from her past, soon finding herself embroiled in a dark web of lies, corruption and human trafficking. The answers she seeks make themselves known as she turns over every rock she encounters, and eventually comes face-to-face with the truth about her friend’s disappearance.
One of the most infuriating things about Perdida is that there is so much about it that actually works. When taking a step back and looking at the film from a purely aesthetic point of view, there is actually a lot to like: the cinematography is suitably stark, washed-out, high-contrast, sometimes feeling outright expressionistic in its exploration of the dark world it inhabits as well as the inner lives of its characters (most notably Manuela). It would even be accurate to call this film stylish, which is no small thing; for my money, the single biggest problem in modern filmmaking is a complete artlessness in the aesthetics of cinema, and a relegation of visuals to a secondary afterthought instead of an actual storytelling tool. The blocking, shot composition, and overall presentation of the movie is pretty impressive for a production of its size, and its wonderful opening scene immediately gives you a sense of scope that is sadly unmatched by the rest of it.
And the rest of it is… Well, to say it is a disappointment would be putting it mildly. If I were to summarize my feelings about the film with an animated gif, it would be the one with a crying Tyra yelling at one of her ANTM contestants: “we were rooting for you! How dare you?!”.
There are three central problems that I see in this film: the acting, the writing, and the directing. They are all closely tied to one another. Throughout the entire film, there seems to be a thick fog of detachedness that permeates every single dialogue scene. Every phrase feels laborious, like a ton of bricks coming out of each actor’s mouth, stiff and unnatural and hopelessly contrived. It is actually a very similar problem to what we saw in Edha, where the attempt to build a gritty, self-serious drama resulted in wooden, mechanical acting, where nothing felt like it moved with any sort of natural ease. So is this because these actors are… Bad?
Well, not necessarily. With hyper-stylized productions like Perdida and Edha, the choice to have characters speak like unfeeling robots is one that is often arrived at due to a combination of factors, including unnaturally-written dialogues (what works in the pages of a novel doesn’t always translate well when spoken out loud by actual human bodies), and directorial guidance. It is my impression here that Montiel pushed his cast towards this very specific delivery to augment the dark, brooding tone of weightiness that the film seems to be striving desperately for. Instead, the tone that it lands on is “comically awkward”.
At the end of the day, wanting a film to be good is not the same as actually enjoying a film. Perdida could have actually been great if its factors lined up differently, and it hadn’t given up on shooting for this relentlessly somber tone. The end result is a jumbled mess of listless performances, clumsy plotting, and wildly uneven pacing. Let’s hope the next Netflix Original from this country does a better job at showcasing the true quality of contemporary Argentinian cinema.