Ines Cezar de Oliveira’s precise, bleak take on the perils of existence continues with “The Counting of the Damages,” a challengingly downbeat portrait of a family and a country still suffering the aftershock from Argentina’s military dictatorship. Ever-elliptical helmer edges a little closer to conventional narrative with this third feature, but auds hoping for a return to the gentle, melancholy perceptions of 2005’s fine “The Hours Go By” may find that this harder-edged piece of work offers too little human consolation. Limited fest appearances can be expected.
Cezar’s “Foreigner” (2007) remade Euripides: This time, it’s Sophocles. In a striking eight-minute prologue, a young man (Santiago Gobernori), on his way to a factory to assess its efficiency, causes a car crash. It later develops that the factory owner, who ran the business with his wife (Eva Bianco) and her brother (Marcelo D’Andrea), has been killed in an accident, though whether it’s the same accident is left unclear. The rest of the pic explores the unforeseeable ramifications of the twin tragedies.
After initial awkwardness, the young man and the wife somewhat inexplicably sleep together. The wife was one of the “disappeared” during the dictatorship, and while under arrest, she gave birth to a son of whom nothing else is known. In raising the Oedipal suspicion that the young man might be the son, the pic suggests the unnatural acts of the dictatorship are generating catastrophic consequences in the present.
Stylistically, it’s challenging stuff. Dialogue is brief, silences extended. At home, tea is taken in silence as the wife’s older daughter (Agustina Munoz) catatonically repeats the same few notes on an old piano, a theme interwoven into the delicate, Debussy-inspired piano score.
Tragedy is etched deep in Blanco’s gaunt features as her character’s mental health declines, while Gobernori looks suitably baffled as a man out of his professional and emotional depth.
Occasional references to Greek drama in the work itself feel contrived and unnecessary. Sound work is superb, with industrial hums never far from the surface, generating a mood of subtle threat. Helmer prefers the long, static take of, for example, the color-drained factory in operation, or of the troubled couple silent in bed. Interiors are unfailingly low-lit.