Review: ‘The Owner’

Alight Marxist-feminist perspective informs the Argentine-Uruguayan co-production "The Owner," a rather simple, if at moments also powerful, tale of revenge against sexual oppression and domineering patriarchy. Shot for the most part in black-and-white, this well-made historical melodrama is too slight and underdeveloped to be truly resonant, but it should find open doors on the fest circuit.

Alight Marxist-feminist perspective informs the Argentine-Uruguayan co-production “The Owner,” a rather simple, if at moments also powerful, tale of revenge against sexual oppression and domineering patriarchy. Shot for the most part in black-and-white, this well-made historical melodrama is too slight and underdeveloped to be truly resonant, but it should find open doors on the fest circuit.

Antenor (Walter Reyno), whom everybody calls “patron,” is the owner of vast lands in the Argentine Pampas in the 1930s. Getting older, but still single, he’s obsessed with having a son who will inherit his land, carry on his name and maintain the status that he had worked so hard to achieve. Upon meeting Paula (Valentina Bassi), an alluring adolescent peasant, he’s determined to marry her, though she’s in love with one of his workers.

Having no choice, the poor girl consents, and a loveless marriage of convenience follows. There’s hardly any communication between the spouses other than intense sexual intercourse in an hysterical effort to procreate. As fate and irony would have it, Antenor becomes paralyzed and, unable to speak, is left totally dependent on his wife for his physical needs.

Gradually, Paula takes advantage of the situation and even enjoys her new authority. As soon as she gets rid of his loyal servants and workers, she begins a series of tortures that culminate in entrusting their newborn baby to Antenor and setting the whole estate on fire.

Director Jorge Rocca, who made his feature debut, “Pista de baile,” in 1993, is deft at creating moody, oppressive situations that underlie the protagonists’ class distinctions. There’s evocative cinematography of the sparse landscape and the house, which is miles away from the next estate. For long stretches, the narrative is propelled entirely through silence and exchanges of gestures and looks; there’s very little dialogue.

Nonetheless, as told, the story is too rudimentary to have emotional impact beyond the obvious tensions in the material. And because Paula is almost totally isolated from any human contact, the tale doesn’t show the process by which she gains sociopolitical consciousness.

Under these circumstances, the well-acted picture (which in English-speaking territories should retain its original title) comes across as an intermittently powerful vengeance-and-liberation saga.

The Owner

(PATRON)

Production

(ARGENTINE-URUGUAYAN) An Aleph SA/CEMA/Instituto Nacional de Cine y Artes Audiovisuales production. Executive producer, Esteban Schroeder. Directed, written by Jorge Rocca, from a story by Abelardo Castillo.

Crew

Camera (B&W, color), Daniel Rodriguez Maseda; editor, Marcela Saenz; music, Lito Vitale; production design, Enrique Badaro Nadal; sound, Marcos de Aguirre. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival, Sept. 12, 1995. Running time: 87 MIN.

With

Antenor ... Walter Reyno Paula ... Valentina Bassi
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