I have a pretty good constitution in terms of getting creeped out in the cinema. There’s very little that will actually skeeve me out. Horror films — particularly the supernatural or super-gory kind — are a walk in the park. And believe me, I’ve sat through some gruesome stuff. There’s always something in the back of my head reminding me that what I’m watching is the work of cast and crew members finding clever and creative ways to spook their audience. This isn’t real. These things don’t actually happen. This is silly nonsense!
But, for reasons I can’t really explain, there is something that’s guaranteed to genuinely creep me out and have me squirming in my seat: stories of dysfunctional families hiding deep, dark secrets. Even outside of the context of horror, there’s nothing as profoundly disquieting to me as the hushed secrecy of a family that puts on appearances while hiding their true nature from the world, and perhaps even from each other. The heavy spectre of unspoken truths permeating every dinner conversation. The desperate need to bury the past and paint over it with something more palatable. The knowing glances and pointed remarks.
Pablo Trapero’s controversial new film La Quietud doesn’t really come anywhere close to resembling a horror movie; it is the very definition of a family drama. However, it does deal with this uncomfortable darkness for nearly the full length of its runtime. It revels in it, introducing the viewer into it gradually, to the point where you find that you’re chest-deep into it without even realizing it. The film ensnares you in its labyrinthine murkiness so methodically that it almost normalizes the discomfort, and you’re not really capable of fully making sense of the experience until you’re walking out of the screening.
The film’s title has, of course, a double meaning: not only does it point to the quiet knowledge that lies dormant within the characters’ inner lives, but it’s also the name of the idyllic, picturesque family farm where Esmeralda (Graciela Borges) lives with her husband (Isidoro Tolcachir) and their younger daughter Mia (Martina Gusman).
At the start of the film, it is relayed to the audience that the father is being investigated due to some property dispute; however, he suffers a stroke in the middle of the court proceedings and falls into a coma. His older daughter, Eugenia (Berénice Bejo), immediately flies home from Paris, where she has been living for the last 15 years. She takes up residence with her mother and sister at La Quietud, and it’s not long before old tensions start bubbling up to the surface, and certain uncomfortable truths start coming to light.
The titular farm, which in real life is located in the heart of Luján, is a stunning location for this film; there are clear parallels to be made between the way Trapero shows us around the premises — shots that marvel in the majesty of the surroundings for a while, before peering discreetly into barely-closed-over doors, slowly giving us more of a sense of the entire location — and the way he chooses to reveal, bit-by-bit, the real backstory behind this apparently picture-perfect family.
Intimate confessions, wry insinuations and intense confrontations serve to bring us gradually closer to a full understanding of the entire picture, and having that spoiled for you would be a tremendous disservice to a film whose strength lies not only in what it reveals, but in how. It is worth mentioning that the film is also a feast to the eyes, with vivid art design and sumptuous, expressive cinematography serving to further adorn this lush, regal, almost Gothic drama.
Another high point in the film is the cast, which is uniformly great throughout. There are layers upon layers of nuance in the performances of the two sisters, whose relationship is central to the film both story-wise and thematically. If either of these performances were weak or even merely serviceable, a lot of the tension that runs through the film would be outright spoiled. Also of note: Graciela Borges, one of the most emblematic figures in Argentine cinema, shines in a late-career highlight as the scheming, manipulative and highly secretive Esmeralda, also managing to inject some moments of pitch-black comedy into this breathless tonal hodgepodge.
It is precisely that strange, sometimes jarring tonal shift that I consider to be one of the movie’s key strengths, but I can certainly understand why its detractors would view as a weakness. This is certainly not a movie that one could categorize as bland. It goes for it. It launches head-first and full-steam-ahead into its moments of heightened drama with a complete lack of inhibition, which I find admirable.
Sometimes, it lands on the other side of absurdity, and there certainly are a few moments (particularly toward the third act, where the revelations start coming to light and the pace picks up considerably) where it feels tonally incongruous. But I find it more rewarding to watch a film that takes grand leaps with little regard to how it may come across. Yes, some of the plot points feel a bit reminiscent of telenovelas, but they are conveyed so elegantly that their apparent tawdriness doesn’t really matter.
La Quietud is a remarkable piece of filmmaking from one of Argentina’s most talented directors. It has grand ambitions and is unflinching in its execution. It grapples with quite a lot in the course of its runtime. Some of the characters might feel a bit thinly sketched (looking at you, Vincent and Esteban). It is often controversial and uncomfortable. But it is also a uniquely powerful and rewarding experience if you can endure that.
La Quietud is currently playing in theaters throughout Buenos Aires.