A Guest of Honour

in 73rd Venice International Film Festival

by Massimo Lechi

The Argentinian writer Daniel Mantovani (Oscar Martínez), the protagonist of The Distinguished Citizen (El Ciudadano Ilustre), is a complicated man. Three decades devoted to writing about his faraway hometown while living in self-imposed exile in Europe have made him famous, an authoritative intellectual, but also turned him restless, self-absorbed, anti-social.  He is not one bit happier when winning the Nobel Prize in Literature. Blunt to the point of rudeness, he shocks royalties and academicians at the ceremony in Stockholm by delivering a sharp speech on the incompatibility between official recognition and honest art. Honours kill both freedom and talent, Mantovani provocatively declares, as he accepts the highest among the literary awards. A writer praised by a monarch is a dead writer.

These jaw-dropping words, met first by an embarrassed silence and then welcomed by a paradoxical standing ovation, turn out to be his last public act of rebellion against power and hypocrisy. Years after his memorable coup de théâtre, stuck in a big anonymous house in Barcelona, Mantovani spends most of his time refusing grand crosses and honorary doctorates. But when the mayor of his native Salas sends him a letter and offers him the Distinguished Citizen Medal, he impulsively decides to jump on a plane and go back to South America, to his only irreplaceable source of inspiration.

The beginning of Gastón Duprat’s and Mariano Cohn’s new film might seem the prelude to a tepid character study, with the camera shadowing a middle-aged man through predictable verbal fights and sexual encounters. What follows is actually quite different. The moment the contemptuous Nobel laureate arrives in Argentina, the movie slowly starts broadening its scope: not just the gloomy story of a writer in the grip of a spiritual crisis, but a quick and sardonic comedy about an artist forced to pay the price for his hubris.

Salas, a rural town with empty shops and frustrated rednecks driving dented Jeeps, initially seems eager to greet and celebrate its prodigal son. But underneath the magnificent display of effusion, as Groucho Marx’s Captain Spaulding would have called it, lies a startling truth: Mantovani’s fellow citizens know almost nothing about his work. Even the ones who have read his books haven’t realized how he has substantially exploited and manipulated their community in order to exorcise his own inner demons. The Salas celebrated by literary critics all over the world has in fact little to do with a picturesque Macondo: it’s a squalid Winesburg, a bleak Yoknapatawpha County, a violent microcosm whose inhabitants embody all the main flaws of macho societies.

The inevitable clash of Mantovani’s cynical sophistication and his people’s artless mentality is the core of a story built partly as a Via Crucis and partly as a redde rationem. Andrés Duprat’s script provides the viewer with an amusing series of increasingly unpleasant situations that show the envied and misunderstood guest of honour deal with petty Peronist politicians, cheeky lolitas, pushy fans, silly TV hosts and childhood friends full of resentment. There is also an old flame, a married woman who vaguely represents the love and happiness the writer was never able to achieve. With her hot-breathing daughter and jealous husband, she will trigger a tragedy, changing the movie’s tone for a last time, and forcing a humiliated, regretful Mantovani to flee from his past once and for all.

Smart and fast-paced, The Distinguished Citizen is a movie that goes straight to the point. Everything in it works, even the sloppy mise-en-scène and the poor cinematography – a more refined camera work would have probably compromised much of the comedy. In Venice, this small but so intelligent Argentinian satire premiered to positive reviews, with the great Oscar Martínez snagging the coveted Volpi Cup for Best Actor. His outstanding performance will certainly be remembered as one of the highlights of an uneven main competition.

Edited by Gerald Peary