Suddenly, Judge Russell Engebretson found himself craving a film with an actual plot.
Sometimes life happens.
The script for Suddenly was based on the novel La Prueba (The Test) by Argentinean writer Cesar Aria. Director Diego Lerman said he wanted to create a film in which "many things happen" with "contradictions reveling in contradictions." That's not a bad summation of the movie, but this viewer was longing for fewer events and contradictions, and more character development.
Facts of the Case
Marcia (Tatiana Saphir) works as a sales clerk in a lingerie shop in Buenos Aries. Since her boyfriend dumped her, she has spiraled into an ever-deepening funk. She finds her humdrum routine disrupted when a pair of bisexual females called Mao and Lenin abduct her at knifepoint. Marcia is Mao's (Carla Crespo) object of desire, and Marcia puts up only token resistance to her kidnappers. Mao and Lenin (Veronica Hassan) then steal a taxicab and drive until it runs out of gasoline. They hitchhike their way to a small seaside town, Rosario, where Lenin's barely remembered aunt Blanca (Beatriz Thibaudin) lives.
After paying a nominal sum to Blanca for a room, Marcia and Mao enjoy a Sapphic encounter. In the meantime, Lenin reminisces with her aunt. A couple of boarders at Blanca's house are introduced along the way: a biology student, Felipe (Marcos Ferrante), and a teacher, Delia (Maria Merlino). The remainder of the movie is a series of encounters and conversations among the cast of characters.
Suddenly is Diego Lerman's first directorial effort. It garnered awards from several film festivals in 2002, including a Best Film co-win with City of God at the Havana Latin American Film Fest. Two more dissimilar movies are hard to imagine; about the only thing they have in common is the continent of South America.
The movie starts off nicely, with scenes of Marcia commuting from a Uruguayan subway station to her job. Marcia's commute alternates with scenes of Mao and Lenin stealing a moped, which they later sell to a fence. There is no dialogue until Marcia opens up the lingerie shop for business and greets her coworker. I enjoyed the sense of place the camera conveys as it follows each character through the bustling Argentinean cityscape. When Marcia impulsively purchases an expensive pair of sunglasses during her lunch break, we see the sadness and desperation of an overweight, jilted girl who wants to hide and simultaneously to glamorize herself. There are comparable vignettes throughout the film that illuminate personalities visually, rather than through the use of dialogue. Those scenes, along with background music heard from onscreen sources, lend a touch of cinema verite to the film.
Despite strengths like these, however, Suddenly is dragged down by inane speechifying, the lack of a plot, and banal characterizations. Lenin and Mao are the main culprits here. Why do they take the names of Communist revolutionaries? They do not share a coherent political thought between them. They communicate with frowns, sneers, and adolescent sarcasm. Mao's sexual proposition to Marcia is unrepentantly thoughtless and crude, and that fairly well sums up her personality traits to the end of the movie. Lenin, whose given name is Veronica, belatedly matures through her interactions with her aunt Blanca, and so redeems herself by the story's end. Blanca is my favorite character, but it is the power of Thibaudin's performance that intrigues me. There are hints of Blanca's full and interesting life as Lenin briefly inspects an array of pictures pasted on the wall, and a bit of history is revealed when Lenin and her aunt speak to one another. The script leaves the rest to the viewer's imagination. If it were not for Thibaudin's luminous acting, Blanca would be a pedestrian role.
As for the plot, there really isn't one. The movie is just a string of episodes; one incident follows another. It begins as a character study, flirts with suspense, imitates French New Wave cinema, morphs into a road movie, and ends with an overly extended coda at aunt Blanca's house. A few vague where-they-are-now bits attempt to tidy things up.
The picture was shot in 16mm black and white that displays a considerable amount of grain. Contrast is fairly strong, so many details are lost in the shadows. The DVD sports a decent transfer, considering the film's shortcomings. Unfortunately, the anamorphic transfer is letterboxed and pillared (that is, black-boxed all around). Subtitles are English, and they cannot be turned off because they are burned in. The audio is mostly clear, but occasionally spoken parts sound a bit muddy. The perfunctory set of extras includes a short, written "Director's Bio," four trailers, and a photo gallery. The photo gallery is completely superfluous, just a few stills from the finished movie. The trailers are The Twilight Samurai, Almost Peaceful, The Three Marias, and Suddenly.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The actors' lines may have come across weakly due to a poor English translation. The bit of Spanish I understood did not always match up with the subtitles. That may explain some of the odd conversations, but I'm willing to wager that even a top-notch translation could not salvage the bulk of the dialogue. The music complemented the film in a quiet, unobtrusive manner. I especially liked the jazzy bossa nova tune that played on the menu screen and at the very end of the movie.
Some writers have compared Lerman to Jim Jarmusch (Down by Law, Dead Man). Well, maybe there is a superficial resemblance. They both work in black and white and explore quirky character interactions. However, Jarmusch is a much more accomplished director; his film Dead Man, for instance, boasts striking cinematography and an interesting exploration of existential themes. Of course, Jarmusch has been directing movies for quite some time, and Lerman is a newcomer to the full-length feature. Suddenly is a flawed, unpolished product, but I believe Lerman shows considerable promise as a director. I want to recommend this movie, but I just can't; its lack of plot and thin characterization are too off-putting. It is probably worth the rental for a cineaste.
The movie is found guilty for producing a sense of listlessness and fidgety behavior in the moviegoer. The court expects better from the director next time.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Empire Pictures
• Director's Bio
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