Friday, April 18, 2008

HFFNY: The Other

It might not be quite like the urban legend of the dead man endlessly riding the New York subway, but when the protagonist of Ariel Rotter’s The Other (El Otro) has to clamber over a dead passenger when his bus arrives at its provincial Argentine destination, it still must mean something. Closing the Havana Film Fest NY last night, The Other (Spanish trailer here) had the final word of the fest (aside from a special screening of Havana Kidz II in the Bronx today).

Juan Desouza is an attorney. He seems to specialize in boring law. He appears happily married but must attend to an ailing father. After Manuel Salazar dies next to him during the trip, Desouza calmly attends to the property matters which brought him out, but he declines his local contact’s hospitality, eager to leave when the work is done. Except, for some reason he does not leave. Instead, he checks into two hotels, first under the name of the old man who died in the property in question, and then under Salazar’s identity.

As Desouza vacations from his responsibilities, he is drawn to the wake of the man whose name he appropriated. There he sees a woman who had caught his eye in a restaurant the night before. The attraction is mutual, but Desouza must pursue the brief affair under yet another name, as Salazar obviously will not do.

With issues of identity abounding, Other is a film that feels shrouded in mystery, but actually contains no mysteries at all. However, there are several ironies in Desouza’s hiatus from life. He came into town with death, but he leaves after having reluctantly saved a life. He tries to avoid human entanglements, but seems to attract the attentions of people, like the inn keeper and his legal colleague.

Writer-director Rotter closely observes his characters, but is not terribly concerned with plot. It is an intimate snapshot of one man’s life, as he takes a brief detour from responsibility. It probably suffer slightly if seen soon after Hou Hsiao Hsien’s Flight of the Red Balloon and Wong Kar Wai’s My Blueberry Nights, both of which are stylistically similar, and the under-rated (I know I’m alone out on that limb) Blueberry covers some similar thematic territory.

Rotter is a deliberate filmmaker, benefiting greatly from Marcelo Lavintman’s striking cinematography. (The audience’s frequent laughter during the second screening was puzzling, as this is a contemplative film, not at all comedic.) Rotter is a talented filmmaker and Julio Chavez gives a strong, subtle performance as Desouza (a.k.a. Salazar, etc.), but for all its up-close intimacy, Other never really lets the audience in. For all the time we spend with Desouza, we never really know him. It is a fine film, but in the end, it is more a cerebral exercise than emotional experience.