Like last year's Sundance entry "A Foreign Affair," substantially Spanish-lingo Canadian pic "A Silent Love" offers a diverting spin on the mail-order-bride premise. Low-key nature coupled with older-skewing demographics won't overly entice distribs, but pic could find an appreciative audience among disenfranchised adult moviegoers.

Like last year’s Sundance entry “A Foreign Affair,” substantially Spanish-lingo Canadian pic “A Silent Love” offers a diverting spin on the mail-order-bride premise, making a charming feature debut for writer-director Federico Hidalgo and co-writer Paulina Robles (Hidalgo’s wife). Story of a middle-aged professor wedding a younger Mexican woman, only to find himself falling for the woman’s mother, pic largely plays down the ethnic stereotyping to deliver a carefully observed, fundamentally human roundelay about the wonders and horrors of looking for someone to love. Low-key nature coupled with older-skewing demographics won’t overly entice distribs, but pic could find an appreciative audience among disenfranchised adult moviegoers.

College film teacher Norman (Noel Burton) travels from Montreal to Mexico to meet Gladys (Vanessa Bauche), with whom he has been corresponding for some time via an Internet matchmaking Web site. Assured that computer models give their marriage “a 61% chance of success,” Gladys hesitatingly accepts Norman’s proposal. But before they can say “I do,” Gladys makes an impulsive demand: she will return with Norman to Canada only if he allows her to bring her widowed mother, Fernanda (Susana Salazar). Norman agrees.

Back in Montreal, Norman and Gladys find themselves struggling to re-create the intoxicating mood of their written correspondence — so much so that, at one point, Gladys asks Norman if he had help from somebody in writing his letters. Norman, meanwhile, begins to wonder if perhaps Gladys sees him only as a way to an eventual green card. But the real wrench in the works may be mom, much closer in age to Norman and, it turns out, a mature, intelligent beauty.

That could be the setup for a Hawks or Lubitsch farce (or, for that matter, a von Stroheim morality play — helmer’s “Foolish Wives” is quoted by Hidalgo throughout), but the filmmakers set their rhythms at a more subdued pace, resulting in contemplative scenes about the need for companionship and the enigmatic nature of love. Such moments manage to play as quite funny in a bittersweet way, like Paul Cox’s “Lonely Hearts” and “Man of Flowers” — rather than the slapstick the premise would seem to call for, a la “Something’s Gotta Give.”

The filmmakers have an utter respect for their characters, never forcing them into contrived situations. And the pleasure the mixed cast of Mexican and Canuck thesps take in being afforded such roles is nearly palpable. Vet stage and screen thesp Burton makes for a wonderfully against-type romantic lead, wrapped in the essential shyness of a man who has failed nearly as much in his love life as he has succeeded in his intellectual one. Bauche, who viewers will recognize from “Amores Perros,” radiates a crackling intelligence and south-of-the-border spunk. But pic is commanded by Salazar, who basks gloriously in one of those rare roles that allows an actress of “a certain age” to seem funny, sexy, vital and entirely unafraid to show a few wrinkles.

With the cinematographer Francois Dagenais, Hidalgo employs a handheld camera and natural lighting schemes to create an unfussy, lucid mise-en-scene, marked by a strong sense of how to arrange the actors within the frame.

A Silent Love

Canada

Production

An Atopia presentation. Produced by Pascal Maeder. Directed by Federico Hidalgo. Screenplay, Hidalgo, Paulina Robles.

Crew

Camera (color, Super 16mm), Francois Dagenais; editor, Maxime Chalifoux; music, Robert Marcel Lepage; production designer, Gabriel Tsampalieros; art director, Carlos Salom; set decorator, Sylvain Paveau; costume designer, Maory Gastelo; sound (Dolby Digital), Andres Moreno, Francois Guerin; supervising sound editor, Michael Gurman; associate producers, Luc Dery, Benoit Chartrand; assistant director, Nathalie Goulet; casting, Brigitte Fleury, Myriam Anglade, Emmanuelle Beaugrand-Champagne, Chelsea McIsaac, Alejandro Caballero, Laura Trejo, Bernardo Avila. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema), Jan. 19, 2004. Running time: 100 MIN. (English, Spanish dialogue)

With

Gladys - Vanessa Bauche Norman - Noel Burton Fernanda - Susana Salazar Andre - Maka Kotto Ana Francisca - Regina Orozco Sr. Valdivia - Jorge Zarate Georgina - Carmen Salinas
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