Wednesday, 6 August 2014

THE DESERT - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Argentinian 4-hander w/ 2 hunks, 1 babe and zombies @FantAsia2014

A hot babe w/ a gun & 2 hot hunks - always a bonus during the apocalypse!

Hot Babe gets porked, Hot Hunk gets pricked. Good deal.
The Desert aka El Desierto (2013)
Dir. Christoph Behl
Starring: Victoria Almeida, William Prociuk, Lautaro Delgado, Lucas Lagré

Review By Greg Klymkiw

As per usual, I'm always delighted when filmmakers expand the boundaries of genre filmmaking with new and original takes on the tropes. This is why I endured The Desert, a well-acted and intelligent Argentinian picture which eventually suffers from a detrimental reliance upon one well-intentioned arty-farty longueur after another. (I don't even mind the arty, it's the farty that drives me bonkers.)

A trio of attractive Argentinians have been holed up in a fortified apartment - long enough to have established some reasonable ground rules to approximate a normal life within extraordinary circumstances, a garden-variety post-apocalyptic world with zombies roaming about in search of human flesh. Ana (Victoria Almeida) is in a relationship with Jonathan (William Prociuk). Axel (Lautaro Delgado), understandably obsesses over her lithe form when she's sleeping and possesses himself equally with tattooing flies upon his body.

These, at least from my twisted perspective, both seem like reasonable-enough fetishes, especially given how this odd family unit appears to live. Considering the dire situation they're in, they seem to live reasonably well. Their rules to live by are both lifestyle and safety driven. All decisions must be made collectively and like a jury, they need to be unanimous. Games of the "Truth or Dare" or backgammon variety must be played if even one person wants to play and the others don't. When venturing into the outside world, two people must go - no solo efforts allowed. There are fucking zombies out there, yes? As for expressing themselves privately, given the claustrophobic nature of their existence, they have devoted one room where each can record their own video diary. They then deposit their tapes through a slot into a locked chest.

Given the lack of traditional power and water, they patch into a small generator for electricity and use rain barrels on their roof. Food is of the canned and dry goods variety. Hell, if they weren't mostly relegated to this one ground floor suite, it could, in fact, be a paradise. Alas, like the metaphorical title suggests, there is no oasis - the outside world is as much a desert-like environment as is their inside world. Emptiness is all-pervasive.

Luckily, for the audience, we catch these characters on the precipice of going a bit stir crazy, if not borderline bonkers. The biggest tension is between Axel and Ana. Axel wants some nookie and given that Ana's a sultry bit o' Chocotorta, one can't blame him. She knows he's been staring at her while she sleeps and even finds out he's been breaking the rules and sneaking her tapes out of the chest to watch. There's some discussion and consideration given to the idea of sharing her, but this creates added tension. At one point, during a game of Truth or Dare, certain confessions rear their ugly heads and even worse, one of the dares involves capturing and tattooing a zombie.

Ana has been keeping a memorial to every zombie they're forced to kill by giving each one a Greek name and etching it upon a wall. When the men drag home a live zombie for the tattooing dare, he's securely chained and Ana soon gives him the name Pythagoras (Lucas Lagré). He becomes a surrogate pet to her and she spends hours staring at it, attempting to communicate with the woeful wretch and even decorating his face with spray paint.

Here's the deal. There's nothing wrong with the story, nor is there anything wrong with the deliberate pace used to recreate a sense of both claustrophobia and tedium, but there are eventually far too many moments where the tedium forces your mind to wander and it's here where you're not only taken out of the story, but forced to mull over several unanswered questions and/or holes in the plot. While one is watching a movie is not the right time to be thinking about such matters and this results in an overall experience wherein a good many of the picture's parts are excellent, but the whole leaves a bit to be desired. (Sorry for butchering Aristotle here, but given the Greek names Ana's obsessed with, it seemed appropriate.)

The performances director Behl elicits from the cast are, as mentioned, superb. The triangle of friends/lovers feel like a genuine unit, albeit a frayed one. Almeida's Ana is a lovely mix of sexy, smart, cheeky and resourceful, but beneath the spitfire, she evokes, especially in her soulful eyes, a sense of sadness which plays beautifully with her overall journey as a character. Lucas Lagré is astonishing as the zombie - his remote, blank qualities conjure a sense of tragedy and empathy, except during occasionally shocking bursts of ferocity. Delgado's Axel is ruggedly handsome with an offbeat quality which he uses to superb effect - whether he's leering or obsessively fetishizing certain aspects of this life in hiding. Sanitation, or lack thereof, is certainly an issue and given the number of disgusting little bastards of the insect family Diptera (to carry the Greek metaphor to a pretentious, on my part, extreme), his need to tattoo flies on his body makes perfect sense, especially since one can only spend so much time under bug netting. Prociuk is an appropriately handsome and stalwart Jonathan - his intense Slavic features (forgive me, I'm an inveterate Ukrainian-spotter) are used to their fullest effect. He evokes an odd sense of emptiness and a kind of working-class roughness which ties in with Ana's own doubts about her love for him.

Behl's direction is, overall, superb - the blocking, sense of composition and the overall mise-en-scène of this world is clearly the work of a gifted filmmaker, as is his finely-tuned feel for observation. Alas, I do wish he'd have occasionally picked up the pace to avoid those stretches where we have too much time on our minds to think about some of the aforementioned plot-holes, most of which are niggling questions about the outside world, but annoying enough to rip us out of the drama. He's clearly a director to watch and if you have a hankering for some existentialist genre-bending and some patience (a definite must here), The Desert will offer you rewards not usually found in post-apocalyptic horror.


The Desert enjoyed its Canadian Premiere at the 2014 edition of the FantAsia International Film Festival in Montreal.