From time to time I stumble across a movie that I really just don't know what to make of. An example: La León, an Argentinian/French co-production and the feature debut of writer-director Santiago Otheguy, and winner of a special mention at the Berlinale. It's the last of those that makes me wonder if there's something wrong with me, because I failed to understand the film. Not that I failed to understand why it is good, but rather I failed to understand how it functioned. Mostly. Some of the time, anyway.

Here's something simple, that I do understand, and that I feel awfully comfortable praising: the cinematography by Paula Grandio. This is the first Argentinian movie ever shot on HD video, in black and white and 'scope widescreen (an aside: of the first seven films I've seen at the Festival this year, only two were b/w, only two were in 2.35:1, and it was the same two. Crazy), and it's one of those much-storied projects that we'd all like to see more of that doesn't use HD as a cost-saving or time-saving measure (though I'm sure it saved both), but actually incorporates the distinct personality of the technology into its aesthetic.

Generally speaking, video is smoother, sharper and of greater focal depth than 35mm film. In a world that makes sense, that would mean it looks more "realistic," but given our cultural familiarity with film, that isn't always the case, and when it's coupled with monochrome, as it is here, the effect is a bit...greyed-out. By which I mean, the whole film seems to exist along a scale, with every shape starting to fade into every other shape. For some reason, I want to call the film "foggy," although that is precisely incorrect. But it does suggest the way that things are just the tiniest bit indistinct. Coupled with the video clarity, that's a really uncanny effect.

(I should probably mention that the film does suffer from video noise during shots of the shade under trees, and given that La León takes place in the rain forest, there's a lot of those shots).

This very lovely visual scheme ties into what I believe is the theme of what I think is the plot, about men who hide their identity so long and so well that they start to lose who they are and were. I'm certain of the following: Alvaro (Jorge Román) is one of several men who live in the deep rural Paraná Delta in Argentina, making their living by gathering reeds, and dependent solely on the riverboat El León owned by Turu (Daniel Valenzuela) to journey around their diasporic neighborhood, including to the bar and soccer field also owned by Turu, the only thing even reasonably close to entertainment in their lives. It just so happens that Alvaro is gay and closeted, and that Turu is a possibly-gay homophobe, and the tension between the two men slowly creeps its way up to a boil throughout the film, hitting the critical point during an agreeably Brokebackesque shot of Turu struggling mightily to check out Alvaro in the shower without looking like he's doing so. Meanwhile, the Argentinians are freaking out over the illegal Paraguayans who are stealing the reed-gathering and logging work.

And after that, I don't know. The last third of the plot makes no sense to me, and I'm not even sure that I mind, but it makes it awfully hard to figure out what is going on thematically, so that lovely, lovely camerawork is just about the only thing to go with.

To a certain degree, it's enough: Otheguy is a great director of the camera, and he manages to give the imagery emotional meaning that trumps the plot. Long, still takes vie with dramatic close-ups and tracking shots along the level of the water to form something that feels much more coherent than it is. It's one of those movies that washes over you and at the end, you're aware of what it meant, without necessarily being sure of how it got there. Its gauzy visuals communicate the sense of isolation and loss that gives the movie its form or meaning, even though I don't really know how to fit those feelings into every corner of the plot. Best probably to think of it as a dreamy abstraction of mood.