Not so Modern Times (Tiempos menos modernos), Simon Franco’s debut film, offers a peaceful look at Patagonia, the South American continental coattail shared by Argentina and Chile. Set in the late nineties, a very stormy time for Argentina, it tells a story of a customary cultural misunderstanding of the type that requires physical presence, but at the same time comes together playfully, in an oblique, subliminal and iconic way.
The story is about a mature native settler, reluctant to accept western concerns and refusing any connection with the state, who devotes himself to raising sheep, feeding off the surrounding nature and playing music for tourists. He is gradually attracted by the absorbing presence of a satellite television that was sent by a bordering Ministry of Social Development. He is particularly drawn to a sickly–sweet romance of a handsome rich heartthrob and a poor, delicate, virginal girl.
Oscar Payaguala, a native artist from the indigenous village of Aonikenk, plays the leading role of Ramiro Payaguala, a solitary Tehuelche hermit who lives quietly in his ranch that possesses no major elements of cosmopolitan life. From the beginning, Simon Franco’s staging is light, slightly earthy, with a touch of situation comedy. It is supported by Payaguala’s charisma and his concrete and laconic relationships.
Among his friendships, the most well–developed is the one he maintains with Felipe (Nicolas Saavedra), a talkative and cunning Chilean. This relationship gradually becomes the cultural hinge of the tale. Felipe’s life has a more urban pace, but he appreciates indigenous habits such as the ancestral barter called “tutanka tutanka” that Payaguala uses when conducting financial or contractual negotiations.
This is a pleasant movie, with gentle contrasts, where the almost untouched natural landscape is filmed as peaceful and accepting, unthreatened by the danger, harshness or intensity of want. Payaguala, who habitually carries a shotgun, threatens foreigners with intolerant reactions, but hazards that could possibly pollute or plunder the area do not intensify and never provoke an untenable situation. His recurrent phrase “I’m nobody’s clown” summarizes his distrust and hostility towards the foreigners that eventually arrive at his land.
The director, who wrote the screenplay with Laura Avila, presents a relatively subtle evolution in Payagualas behavior. Due to an abrupt phone call, received on a brand new telephone that is as invasive as the television, we find out that he once had a wife, apparently not a member of the indigenous world. And even though appearing not to want to hear from this woman, and refusing contact with strangers who ask him to pose for a tourist photo, he is charmed by the graceful Alexia Moyano — provocative and stimulating in the soap opera “Alma Mia”, but inaccessible off the television screen. This device also shows young guys practicing exercises that Payalagua imitates, Charles Chaplin playing with a globe in The Great Dictator, and president Carlos Menem talking about fictitious Argentinean rockets, but only Alexia/Alma affects Payalagua in such a way that he changes his routine.
It is in this manner that Simon Franco pleasantly plays with spacious natural space and the progressive cloistering of the settler, who resists western customs while exploring them. This promising debut contributed a breath of fresh air to the Latin American section of the 26th Mar del Plata Festival.
© FIPRESCI 2011