Life in the Argentine pampas is nasty, brutish and short, judging by the intense, compelling drama "La Rabia."

Life in the Argentine pampas is nasty, brutish and short, judging by the intense, compelling drama “La Rabia.” Impressive if challenging-to-watch work by helmer Albertina Carri (“Los rubios,” “Geminis”) observes adultery, violence and animal slaughter largely through the eyes of two disturbed children, while use of jagged animation and luminous landscape shots transmutes the base material into something more sublime. “La Rabia” is certain to sweep through fests, but could have trouble finding distribution in some territories due to unfaked deaths of various animals which, per opening credits, “lived and died as they naturally would.”

Contempo story revolves around two neighboring farming families living near the desolate town of La Rabia, hence the title (“rabia” literally means “rage”). Nati (Nazarena Duarte), the young daughter of Poldo (Victor Hugo Carrizo) and Alejandra (Analia Couceyro) has inexplicably become a mute. When she’s upset, she takes off her clothes, often in public. With no other playmates, she hangs out a lot with Ladeado (Gonzalo Perez), the slightly older son of local single father Pichon (Javier Lorenzo).

It’s soon revealed why Nati is so disturbed: She’s been spying on her mother secretly having intensely carnal, S&M-inflected sex with Pichon. (Extensively filmed erotic scenes here look like they may not have been faked, a suspicion bolstered by the helmer’s asserted interest in pornography, cited in film’s press notes.) Nati’s ink-splattered drawings of what she’s seen inspire the pic’s periodic flights into rough watercolor and ink-based animations by Manuel Barenboim that enhance the generally disturbing atmosphere. Discovery of a drawing by Nati of mommy’s naked friend also precipitates the film’s violent climax.

Ladeado, meanwhile, is also one unhappy little camper. Also a witness to his father’s infidelity, he’s keeping a snarling weasel (one of nature’s less attractive animals) in a cage in the woods, having killed the rest of the creature’s family, in just one of several disturbing animal scenes, including the matter-of-fact slaughter of a pig and the offscreen shooting of a dog.

Intermittent, long-held shots of the flat, forbidding landscape at sunrise or sunset (most of the film seems to have been lensed at the magic hour) add bleak context to the story’s relentless focus on sex and death. As events progress, one gets the sense that this is a work of a helmer totally in control of her game, deliberately choosing to leave questions unanswered.

Perfs are laconic but convincing. Sparse but disturbing sound design by Rufino Basavilbaso adds atmosphere.

La Rabia

Argentina

Production

A Matanza Cine SRL production, in collaboration with Betaplus Broadcasting production, with the support of Universidad del Cine (FUC), INCAA, the Hubert Bals Fund. (International sales: Bavaria Film Intl., Munich.) Produced by Pablo Trapero, Albertina Carri. Executive producer, Martina Gusman. Directed, written by Albertina Carri.

Crew

Camera (color), Sol Lopatin; editor, Alejo Moguillansky; art director, costumes, Ana Cambre; animation, Manuel Barenboim; sound (Dolby Digital), Rufino Basavilbaso. Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (Panorama), Feb. 13, 2008. Running time: 83 MIN.

With

Analia Couceyro, Javier Lorenzo, Victor Hugo Carrizo, Nazarena Duarte, Gonzalo Perez.

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