"Encarnación": The After Life of a Starlet By Diego Lerer

in 55th San Sebastian International Film Festival

by Diego Lerer

Encarnación is a woman “past her prime”. She was a starlet in the 80’s and now, in her mid-fifties, not many people remember her. She goes to movie premieres and only a few journalists know who she is, and most of them don’t even remember her name. She tries to handle the situation, but she does it in a strange way. She wants to restart her career (the movie begins with Encarnación searching for her name on the Internet and trying to create her own website), but she doesn’t want to become a cliché, the stereotypical older starlet who pretends she’s still 25 and who behaves like that. At the same time, she wants to feel sexy, desired, loved.

When her niece asks her to come to her 15th birthday party in the small town she used to live in (and where her family still does), Encarnación decides to face the situation and goes. She doesn’t have a good relationship with her sister and she doesn’t like being watched or being gossiped about by the town’s folk. But Martina, her niece — who’s 14 and entering adolescence — idolizes her, uses her as a “fashion consultant” and wants to spend as much time as possible with her.

A complex situation presents itself when Eduardo, the hotel attendant who takes care of Encarnación at the resort where she stays, shows up. Martina likes the guy and flirts with him. Encarnación is also flattered by the attention she receives from the twenty-something fellow and she flirts back. Of course, the “famous starlet” wins the game and nothing will be the same after that.

Encarnación (quite a symptomatic title, indeed, with a pun rather difficult to be fully rendered in English) is a movie about how people face the passing of time, the feeling you have when you get older but you still feel young inside. Anahí Berneri’s movie could have been about the pathetic efforts of a decadent “has-been” who cannot accept her own age and becomes a joke for those around her. But it’s exactly the opposite. The audience follows her efforts, as misguided as they sometimes are, empathizes with her search and sees her as a human being, with the same complications any of us might have facing these types of problems.

Berneri’s film is also about being comfortable with your own sexuality, trying to understand it and learning how to use it. When Encarnación seduces the “hotel guy”, when her niece does the same, when she receives the lascivious male gaze that surrounds her everywhere she goes, we can see the effects of beauty and sensuality on all the characters, young and old, male and female.

Like XXY by Lucía Puenzo and Una novia errante by Ana Katz — two recent films made by young Argentine women directors — Encarnación provides a different approach to filmmaking from the one cinephiles usually connect with the New Argentinean Cinema: more narrative oriented, more daring in their subjects and more friendly to actors. In this case, a great performance by Silvia Pérez (a real eighties’ starlet) serves to anchor the film and its thematic preoccupations.

As in her previous film A Year without Love (Un año sin amor) Berneri deals with sexual identity, gender roles and focuses on one character struggling to find a place in a world where they don’t completely fit in. It’s a very assured and complex second film. It proves that a filmmaker can move from one universe to another — and quite a different one — and still remain true to herself.