Cherry-picking elements from a variety of genres for his cautionary fable of media control, writer-director Esteban Sapir turns “The Aerial” into a grab bag of overstatement embellished by sentiment. Based on silent film stylizations along with broad borrowings from comic book characters, pic plays like Dick Tracy meets “Metropolis” via Dziga Vertov, but the encounter is not felicitous. Undeniably lovely visuals can’t sustain an overly precious story that could have made a strong impact as a short. This odd choice for the Rotterdam opener will see limited fest play before falling into the “curiosity only” category.
Best described as a part-talkie, “The Aerial” imagines a B&W world in thrall to Mr. TV (Alejandro Urdapilleta) and his ever-present broadcasts and products. During “Year X,” in the “City Without a Voice,” the populace has lost the ability to speak — all except for The Voice (Florencia Raggi), a faceless mystery woman who sings on one of Mr. TV’s programs.
Together with Dr. Y (Carlos Pineiro), Mr. TV concocts a devious plot to further rob the populace of all communication skills. Their plan calls for controlling The Voice, but little do they know that her son Tomas (Jonathan Sandor), though born without eyes, also has the power of speech.
When The Voice is kidnapped, Tomas is rescued by The Inventor (Rafael Ferro), who knows of an aerial where he can broadcast a plot-destroying message. Together with daughter Ana (Sol Moreno) and wife The Nurse (Julieta Cardinali), they set off, hotly pursued by Mr. TV’s sidekick Mouseman (Raul Hochman).
With The Voice strapped to a giant swastika in Dr. Y’s laboratory and Tomas strapped onto a giant Star of David (oy vey), it’s a race against time to see whether The Inventor can save the City from total mind control.
Sapir certainly makes his message clear: Subtlety isn’t his strong point. He doesn’t disguise his influences either. Besides “Metropolis,” scenes and themes are lifted from the Melies Brothers, “The Bride of Frankenstein” (a fairy in a snow globe), and half a dozen others.
But there’s no punch, just a series of overplayed moments in which he uses the silent film form in the same postmodernist way as a Guy Maddin with Baron Munchhausen fantasies. Even the B&W lensing is toyed with, crystal clear in some scenes and then slightly pulsating in others, as if the projector bulb is struggling for energy.
There are many beautiful moments: the arresting opening, with hands poised above a typewriter as if belonging to a piano accompanist, and a shot of words folded into dough is remarkably inventive.
But Sapir spoils the cleverness with heavy-handed devices, like an overused plastic tear, or that ill-advised swastika versus Star of David coupling.
Vertov’s spirit is ever-present with words directly on images rather than relegated to intertitles, but the great Soviet master would have completely rejected the cutesy sentiment.
Praise, however, goes to production designer Daniel Gimelberg’s beautiful sets, inspired not only by Expressionism but 1940s noir. His constantly snowing cityscapes are lovingly shot by d.p. Cristian Cottet, and the whole transfers handsomely to 35mm (post-production must have taken up the bulk of creative time). For a change, music is properly paired with the images.