A documentary filmmaker student's encounter with the mother of a prisoner elicits subdued emotions in Liliana Paolinelli's mildly engaging feature debut, "Proper Eyes."

A documentary filmmaker student’s encounter with the mother of a prisoner elicits subdued emotions in Liliana Paolinelli’s mildly engaging feature debut, “Proper Eyes.” Considerably more honest in its observations about Argentine prison life than Alejo Hoijman’s recent quasi-docu “Unit 25,” pic nonetheless lacks the kind of impact auds would naturally expect from such material. Although this is the rare contempo Argentine film with Stateside distribution, B.O. will be close to nil, with vid prospects more promising.

With assistant and camera operator Virginia (Mara Santucho) by her side, fledgling filmmaker Alicia (Ana Carabajal) waits outside a low-security prison in the northern Argentine burg of Cordoba to interview wives, girlfriends and mothers of inmates. Her loftyambition is to capture a range of women’s perspectives on incarceration and justice, which has often proved slippery in a country with a history of repression and civic strife.

This latter political context is so low-key during the course of “Proper Eyes” that an informed observer might conclude Paolinelli either doesn’t care about it at all or is determined to be subtle almost to a fault. Early on, Alicia and Virginia are aggressively approached by an older gal, Elsa (Luisa Nunez), bursting with complaints about the prison and its treatment of her son, Luis (Maximiliano Gallo). After several so-so interview subjects, they may now have a game subject.

Much to their growing frustration, Elsa either flakes out on appointment times or has sudden second thoughts about being filmed. Pic suggests Elsa is keeping a secret too awful to discuss, or is so wildly spontaneous that she can’t be relied on, or is being targeted by a threatening outside force.

Part of the film’s strength as an unconventional prison drama is that none of these turn out to be the case; instead, Elsa’s difficulties are those of any mother who is torn by her love for her son and intense shame at his failures.

“Proper Eyes” is surprisingly least involving as a film about filmmaking and its moral responsibilities, which play out when Alicia goes too far and meets — and kisses — Luis in prison. As she knows she’s stepped over the line, Alicia’s time with Luis is fraught with an uncomfortable tension that’s played with effective understatement by impressive newcomer Carabajal and overcooked by Gallo as Luis.

Shot in a studiously neutral style that never prompts or cajoles the viewer, pic’s overall approach is mild and nondescript, with a less than optimal 35mm transfer from DV.

Proper Eyes

Argentina

Production

A Figa Films (in U.S.) release of a Mandragora production. Produced by Juan Solanas. Executive producers, Paula Grandio, Cristina Fasulino, Sol Martorell. Directed, written by Liliana Paolinelli.

Crew

Camera (color), Martin Mohadeb; editor, Lorena Moriconi; music, Vincent Artaud; production designer, Mauro Guevara; costume designer, Emilia Recabarren; sound (Dolby Digital), Leandro de Loredo; supervising sound editor, Loredo. Reviewed at AFI Los Angeles Film Festival (competing), Nov. 3, 2008. (Also in San Sebastian, Mannheim-Heidelberg film festivals.) Running time: 79 MIN.

With

Ana Carabajal, Luisa Nunez, Maximiliano Gallo, Mara Santucho.
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