Screens at CIFF: 10/18 & 10/20 & 10/21
World premiere: 11 February, 2013, Berlin International Film Festival

The Argentine coming-of-age psychodrama in static long takes La Paz treads in so many clichés that I honestly don't know if it avoids tracking all of them all over the nice clean movie theater, let alone how it avoids doing so. Perhaps, then, it does not, and is in fact a disastrously messy, overreaching affair that relies on implicit, deliberately unexpressive storytelling tricks so heavily that it doesn't end up saying a damn thing about its intriguingly specific and complicated central character beyond "emotionally disordered people have emotional disorders".

Perhaps, though, it does. I was actually a little bit smitten with La Paz, though I cannot pretend that everyone else would or should be, and it has the very acute feel of being a "festival film", the sort that seems at its very best when you see it sometime during the third consecutive day of four movies in a row and all of the damn things are willfully obscure art films. Still, La Paz has a heck of a central character in Liso, played with gorgeous restraint by Lisandro Rodríguez, building a character who isn't just as awkwardly unsocial and lost, but downright confused by these hoo-mans and their ee-mo-shuns. That sounds a little alienating, but Liso would undoubtedly be alienating if we ever met him or one of his many real-life analogues, and it's far preferable to the way that e.g. Hollywood movies tend to portray the very emotionally roughed-up as being sharp wits and gentle souls who just need a little bit of love to get their feet right, or as showily Actors Studio basket cases, a collection of tics anchored by nothing remotely human.

The plot: having experienced an acute bout of depression in the backstory, Liso is released from an institution for in the film's opening scene. The quality of his care can be guessed by noting that his attending nurse and he have one last fling before he heads out to the care of his upper class parents (Ricardo Felix and Andrea Strenitz), a brittle pair of well-off yuppies (if the film has one truly indefensible flaw, it's that these character, especially the mother, are depicted with a tiny bit too much glee at exposing how shallow and unlikable they are). Living with them does him little to no good, but their put-upon Bolivian domestic Sonia (Fidelia Batallanos Michel) does turn out to be a more vital emotional tether, and she proves understanding enough that it gives him something to build on, as he attempts to re-learn (or, probably, learn for the first time) how to interact with people in a way that is emotionally rewarding and not just socially prescribed. The only other peace he finds is in his semi-frequent visits with his aging grandmother (Beatriz Bernabe), who uniquely among all the people in his life doesn't respond to him as someone with an emotional disorder.

La Paz moves slowly and methodically through Liso's brain, the character study equivalent of a striptease more than anything, with writer-director Santiago Loza pinning his main character down and simply staring at him for long, silent moments, with such unstinting closeness that even the smallest movements feel like huge, transcendent character beats. None of this would work at all without Rodríguez's performance, which takes place at times entirely not just on his face, but in his eyes specifically, creating the sense of significant, troubling emotions being kept safely buried where they aren't expressed such that anyone could notice them if they didn't e.g. have a camera trained at his face for an entire 73-minute feature.

Eventually, once we've started to get a handle on why Liso is so deliberately slippery and unknowable (we don't really get a handle on knowing him until the last couple of scenes), the film starts to play with a bit more narrative, and give Liso' mother far more activity, not to her benefit as a character; there's a certain layer of incestuous fascination that goes on and perhaps would have been better for the film if had stayed completely backgrounded - like everything else involving the mother character, it smacks of cliché and lazy criticism of an easy target, and while there are many reasons to assault the bourgeois upper-middle class in a study of emotional constipation, La Paz doesn't put in the heavy lifting to make that assault a natural part of the movie. Instead it just feels tacked on, with the mother's general unpleasantness a way of dismissing her character without having to deal with her in as fascinating a manner as Sonia (whose Bolivian heritage gives the movie quite a better way to explore how the Argentine moneyed classes deal with those below them), or even Ivonne (Ivonne Maricel Batallanos), the girl that spectacularly fails to help Liso on the road to bland, conformist family-making.

Still, the final sequence, which snaps everything into focus both for the character and the film's themes, does a lot to redeem much of what seemed "off" throughout the whole movie, and La Paz ends up feeling significantly more complete and driven than it did at any point in the film proper. That's a nifty trick and well-suited to the subject matter, though it doesn't quite keep the film from being a little pokey even at such a short running time. And certainly, the movie traffics in far too many art film stylistic clichés to be considered groundbreaking in any way, shape, or form. But it ends up working and being an entirely sensitive depiction of an easily-exploited topic, and for these things it deserves a nod of appreciation.