After years at sea, a middle-aged sailor returns to his home in deepest Tierra del Fuego and finds his past coming back to haunt him in Lisandro Alonso's supremely accomplished "Liverpool."

After years at sea, a middle-aged sailor returns to his home in deepest Tierra del Fuego and finds his past coming back to haunt him in Lisandro Alonso’s supremely accomplished “Liverpool.” Technically his fourth film (though the previous hourlong “Fantasma” is more properly a featurette), pic continues the Argentine helmer’s fascination with solitary men at work (“La libertad”) or on a mission (“Los muertos”), while elegantly encapsulating a massive family saga. Critical support, certain to surpass that for his previous acclaimed work, will drive strong fest action and sales to new territories for the gifted filmmaker.

Some Alonso watchers will feel that the director, with co-screenwriter Salvador Roselli (whose previous work, including “Bonbon: El Perro” and “Sofabed,” is no indicator of the script at hand), here seems to be inching toward more traditional filmmaking.

That would be somewhat misleading: “Liverpool” reps a key development in current Argentine film, folding narrative subtext (and an epic novel’s worth of drama deliberately backgrounded) into the fabric of a work that refines the art of anti-dramatic filmmaking of which Alonso has been a leader. On every level, from the expressive capacity of natural image and sound to the emotional content of the characters onscreen, pic marks personal artistic progress and an impressive standard for others to match.

Opening section on a massive freighter vessel depicts the everyday life of sailor Farrel (Juan Fernandez), seen early on falling asleep as he works in various sections of the command rooms. After a complete credit roll accompanied by wall-of-sound music (this time by Flormaleva), the first shot establishes Farrel as a loner cut off from the small pleasures enjoyed by others, whether it’s watching the tube or playing games.

Surrounded in shot after shot by control panels, maritime machinery or freight containers, Farrel is dwarfed by everything around him. Only when he methodically packs his bags and disembarks at the chilly Argentine port of Ushuaia does he seems to have a goal ahead of him.

Much like the ex-prisoner of “Los muertos,” boating upriver toward a mysterious destination, Farrel keeps his mission to himself. Along the way, Alonso drops several hints that the sailor has been here many times before and doesn’t plan to stay for long. He also gets drunk at every possible opportunity (this turns into a running gag) and finds himself waking up in abandoned buses and outhouses.

Farrel finally reaches his endpoint — a tiny village tucked into the Martial mountains in Tierra del Fuego’s interior. Location’s freshness for filmgoers is a small part of pic’s fascination, since its residents speak Argentine-accented Spanish, yet live in a setting that variously recalls northern Canada, the Colorado-Utah Rockies or upper Scandinavia.

As always with Alonso, the physical reality of the harsh, unforgiving environment is captured with patient attention to detail, but also with a powerful sense of being, like Farrel, at the edge of the world.

This feeling harmonizes with the terrible personal price Farrel’s long absence has exacted on his daughter Analia (Giselle Irrazabal), who has been raised by Trujillo (Nieves Cabrera), whose curt, bitter welcome to Farrel makes it clear that he looks dimly on this deadbeat dad.

Analia is old enough to sense that Farrel’s disappearance from her life has been a cruel, selfish act, but Irrazabal’s beautiful performance also indicates the girl is too emotionally stunted to communicate her true feelings. If he’s the lonely man in the corner of the picture, she’s a sketched-in figure, doomed to never be completed thanks to Farrel’s neglect.

Brilliance of the overall conception and execution will immediately hit some viewers, while others may need to mull things over. On balance, “Liverpool” looks to win over new converts to a director who’s enjoyed a passionate cult following but nothing like mainstream acceptance.

Cinematographer Lucio Bonelli makes masterful use of interior and exterior space in the manner of John Ford and Jean Renoir, with such a strong sense of setting that viewers may feel chilly enough to don a coat. For those who can spot it, subtle use of red permeates production designer Gonzalo Delgado’s work. Unlike previous Alonso features, no animal is killed onscreen, though they’re still ill-fated.

Liverpool

Argentina

Production

A 4L (Argentina) production, in co-production with Fortuna Films, Slot Machine, Eddie Saeta, Black Forest Films. (International sales: the Match Factory, Cologne.) Produced by Lisandro Alonso, Ilse Hughan, Marianne Slot, Luis Minarro. Directed by Lisandro Alonso. Screenplay, Alonso, Salvador Roselli.

Crew

Camera (color), Lucio Bonelli; editors, Alonso, Fernando Epstein, Martin Mainoli, Sergi Dies; music, Flormaleva; production designer, Gonzalo Delgado; sound (Dolby Digital), Catriel Vildosola; sound designer, Vildosola; supervising sound editor, Vildosola; re-recording mixer, Ricard Casals. Reviewed at Hoyts General Cinema, Buenos Aires, April 14, 2008. (In Cannes Film Festival -- Directors' Fortnight.) Running time: 85 MIN.

With

Juan Fernandez, Giselle Irrazabal, Nieves Cabrera.

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