Screens at CIFF: 10/16 & 10/21 & 10/21
World premiere: 2 July, 2012, Karlovy Vary International Film Festival

While watching The Bella Vista, I was turned off by it completely; a couple of hours later, I had mellowed to not really caring one way or another; and writing this, I find its commitment to violating the expected norms of documentary filmmaking to be fascinating in its boldness, though I still have grave doubts about its effectiveness as a work of cinema. Who knows where I'll be a week from now.

The trick to getting one's head around the film, I think, is taking its title at face value: no matter what people and cultures it seems like the movie is going to focus on, it's really about the Bella Vista, a tiny stone building in a tiny Uruguay village, that was, decades ago, the home turf for a community football team, before being bought out under what may have been shady terms and turned into a transvestite brothel. It's not shocking that this fact managed to upset the conservative, religious, and openly homophobic locals; it's shocking that it apparently took fully 20 years for them to do something about it.

The Bella Vista is not about the conflict between the two sides each wanting to claim the Bella Vista for their own, and that's just the most obvious way in which this documentary throws almost nothing but curve balls in the course of a scant 73-minute running time that packs more disorienting reversals than most movies could manage, or dream about, in twice that running time. This is a fucking weird movie, in which that same bigots vs. trannies plotline evaporates in the space of an offscreen legal decision, with at least a third of the movie yet to come, and no dramatic situation whatsoever to fill the remaining space. Not that we're supposed to evaluate non-fiction films with an eye towards plot structure, of course, but first-time filmmaker Alicia Cano has taken great pains to blur the line between fiction and non-fiction in this case, structure the movie visually to look just like a normal narrative feature, though the (excessive, the cynic might say) use of after-the-fact reconstructions of moments that probably happened just like we see them, moments that probably didn't, and moments that don't begin to make sense unless we consider them to be fully-scripted moments designed to patch over chunks of real life that surely happened in a less literate, dramatic register. In essence, the film is a constructed, dramatic feature, in which people are playing themselves, doing the exact things they would do anyway, or already did. Or something. Ambiguity is baked-in to The Bella Vista at a very basic conceptual stage.

Temporarily disregarding the question of reality vs. non-reality, though, the film still has the weird twist of emphatically not being about the one exact thing that it suggests its going to be about. Which brings me back to the point that the better way to handle the film is to take The Bella Vista, the title, as gospel. This is a film about the history, present, and future of the physical space called the Bella Vista; insofar as the people we meet over the course of the film are important, it's only because their histories, for a time, intersected with the history of that place. A reading that, itself, has problems, though it's the only means I have at my disposal to comprehend why the film would sink so much energy into making us care about the plight of some of the prostitutes, chief among them Agustina Aguero, and the story of her new boyfriend who maybe isn't up to the stigma of dating a person of nonstandard gender, just to abandon them for a lengthy sequence in which former ball player, and current champion of traditional values Alcides "PatΓ³n" Lerena makes bricks from mud. For those bricks play directly into the story of the Bella Vista; Agustina does not.

Whatever the case, the film plays a nervy game without the viewer's expectations, no matter what those particular expectations might be: it will zig when everything you know about film tells you that it will zag, and that gives it the very real value of the brave and the novel, at the very least. I am not, at this point, certain whether it has anything else going on, or at least anything going on in a sustained way: certainly, the time spent with Agustina, PatΓ³n, and a handful of other people captures something of the dynamic of the town and the people living there, exploring who these people are without taking sides, as such. The only problem with this is that there's not enough of it for the little bit we've got to make much of an impact: there's just enough acute observation for it to feel promising, but awfully incomplete. I dearly wish that there'd be more context and history, or even just more psychology: while everything in The Bella Vista, on its own terms, works extremely well, it all works in isolation, and the film itself plays, often, like an exercise in frustration for the sake of it.