CIFF notes: after The Delay, a dip in the Mekong

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From The Delay
  • From The Delay
For me, the Chicago International Film Festival doesn't start with the Thursday night gala that officially kicks off the fest but with the first show on Friday afternoon. The movie tends to be one of the less heavily promoted of the fest, lacking the trail of reviews that accompanies the bigger titles. A spectator goes into it not knowing what to expect; all he can hope for is that it rewards his curiosity.

This year that movie was The Delay, a domestic drama from Uruguay. I can't say I went into it totally free of expectations. I've enjoyed most of the Uruguayan films I've seen in recent years (Whisky, A Useful Life, Gigante, and Norberto's Deadline are the first examples that come to mind) and regard that nation's cinema as one of the most reliably interesting in the world. The current generation of Uruguayan filmmakers possess a strong grasp on character quirks, everyday disappointment, and the challenges of holding down a job—in other words, the nuts and bolts of living that most movies overlook. On the basis of The Delay (which screens again tonight at 8:15 PM and tomorrow at 12:30 PM), director Rodrigo Plá seems another worthy member of this group.

The movie tells a simple story of a middle-aged factory worker (Roxana Blanco, whose weathered face offers much to scrutinize on a big screen) taking care of two children and a senile father on her own. The old man's condition is deteriorating; he clearly needs greater care than she can provide. Unfortunately, she can't afford to send him to a nursing home and she declares "too high" of an income to claim state assistance. What to do? Plá has created a fine aesthetic to portray the woman's sad—and sadly commonplace—dilemma. Most of the film transpires in shallow focus, so that either the foreground or background of the frame seems blurry. In some of the more impressive shots, Plá and cinematographer Maria Secco manage to focus on a person in middle distance from the camera and obscure the spaces both ahead and behind her. It feels as though the world is literally closing in on the characters, an apt metaphor for poverty as well as senility.

From Mekong Hotel
  • From Mekong Hotel
The entire cast of The Delay is agreeably understated in what may be termed the "New Uruguayan" style, but the movie feels like a Method workshop compared to Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Mekong Hotel, the other festival film I checked out yesterday. This hour-long quasi-documentary is likely the most experimental work in this year's slate (though I've heard that Carlos Reygadas's Post Tenebras Lux, which plays next weekend, gets pretty far out there), and I appreciate the festival programmers taking a risk with it. More of a sketchbook than a fully realized piece, this features the great Thai director hanging out at the titular location with some of his regular actors and a musician friend. Overlooking the Mekong River inspires the artists to reflect on the experience of Laotian immigrants in Thailand and the spiritual aura of the region, but that's making the movie sound too narrative-driven. This is a mood piece through and through; the position of the camera and the characteristically dense sound design are as crucial to the thematic content as anything the performers say or do. After a long week of watching more ambitious films in the fest, I found myself refreshed by the deliberately unambitious Mekong, a quick soak in a curious environment by an artist prone to immersive experiences. It plays again next Sunday, October 21, at 7:30 PM.

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