Sunday, December 25, 2011

Submitted by the UK: Patagonia

The last recorded use of the stocks as a form of corporal punishment occurred in late nineteenth century Wales (thank you Alan Ayckbourn for this timely information). Although most spent their time laboring in the mines rather than confined to the medieval devices, it was certainly a difficult period for the Welsh. Hoping for a better life, a small group of settlers established a Welsh colony in Argentine Patagonia. This Welsh-Argentine connection inspired the two parallel but unconnected stories of Marc Evans’ Patagonia (trailer here), which has been officially submitted by the United Kingdom for Academy Award consideration as the best foreign language film of the year.

Rhys and his girlfriend Gwen are having a rough patch in their relationship. Though they have been trying unsuccessfully to get pregnant, she remains unsure about the whole marriage thing. At the last minute, she joins his trip to photograph the ridiculously picturesque Welsh chapels of Patagonia, with the intent of ironing out their issues. However, the plan is complicated by the presence of their guide Mateo, a rugged Welsh gaucho.

Meanwhile, the aging Cerys takes her unsuspecting nephew Alejandro in the opposite direction. Supposedly accompanying her for a routine hospital visit, the nebbish sci-fi reader finds himself en-route to Wales, where Cerys intends to seek out her ancestral farm.

Wisely, the twains are never forced to meet in some unlikely third act contrivance. Nor are their thematic relations particularly strong, beyond the Welsh Patagonian angle, which is admittedly pretty distinctive cinematic territory. The scenery is also quite pleasing for both story arcs, whether it be the rolling hills and stone cottages of Wales or the striking mountain vistas of Patagonia.

Matthew Gravelle’s poor old Rhys might not be a bad chap, but if your impression of Welshmen is largely informed by Richard Burton, Dylan Thomas, and Sir Tom Jones, the moody photographer is bound to be a disappointment. The sensitive man of action Mateo (somewhat confusingly played by Matthew Rhys) certainly compensates in this regard. Frankly though, the love triangle (with its third side nicely played by Nia Roberts, director Evans’ wife) is the weaker of the two narratives. (So much angst and heartache could have been avoided had they simply jotted each other a few quick notes at key junctures.)

In contrast, there is something about Cerys’ return to her roots that strikes a deep chord. Evans never overplays it though, letting the significance of her sentimental journey evolve organically. Likewise, Marta Lubos is quite charismatic as Cerys, but keeps her scrupulously grounded. While saddled with a bit of a wishy-washy character, Nahuel Pérez Biscayart certainly plays Alejandro with whole-hearted earnestness. Still, the amount of mascara lathered on Welsh pop star Duffy as his potential romantic interest Sissy is just distractingly out of place.

Like Terreferma and Montevideo: Taste of the Dream, Patagonia looks great (cinematographer Robbie Ryan has a keen eye for the disparate environments) and also sounds quite pleasant. Both Joseph LoDuca’s score and “Mateo’s Theme” composed by Angelo “Twin Peaks” Badalamenti take clear inspiration from the romantic music of Argentina. Nonetheless, much of the drama is rather forced. Not without merits, Patagonia is considerably better than last year’s best foreign language Oscar winner, so Academy voters could probably do far worse the Welsh-Spanish film this year.