'The Lips'

Considerable strength lies in its perceptive focus on these modern-day Mary Magdalenes.

Three women bring their medical skill, bedside manner and considerable patience to the task of treating desperately poor families in a distant Argentine outpost in Santiago Loza and Ivan Fund’s lovingly rendered “The Lips.” The film’s considerable strength lies in its perceptive focus on these modern-day Mary Magdalenes in private moments as well as their heartfelt interactions with needy locals, actual residents playing themselves opposite the trio of actresses. Triumphant screenings at the Buenos Aires fest and Un Certain Regard selection should provide a strong international launch for a likely popular fest title.

Just as it’s impossible to determine who does what between co-directors Loza and Fund, there’s no clear division of labor between earth-motherish Coca (Adela Sanchez), more cerebral Noe (Eva Bianco) and slightly emotionally disturbed Luchi (Victoria Raposo). Viewed without comment as they meet for an overnight bus trip to tiny San Cristobal in Argentina’s Santa Fe province, the three settle in easily with each other, resigned to the fact their assignment isn’t going to be easy.

At first, their local “angel,” Raul (Raul Lagger), appears to be a country bumpkin, and when he tries to make the women’s lodging sound homey, the images onscreen make him seem like a B.S. artist. (Raul turns out to be a nice guy after all.) The doubtless cash-strapped hosts have put the women up in a horribly derelict former hospital.

As with so much else, Coca, Noe and Luchi stoically put up with it, stepping up their game to attend to the needs of a range of local patients. Loza and Fund apply the same concern for these people, allowing long passages of “The Lips” to become a mix of fiction and nonfiction, as actors playing the doctors listen to the real local families discussing their personal and health problems, exposing a shocking level of poverty that seems to have an especially strong impact on the sensitive Luchi.

Restless during sleep hours and concerned for her safety, Luchi sometimes wanders the shelter’s dark hallways at night. In a subtly musical way, “The Lips” continually shifts tone, from these more troubling sections to the semi-docu interviews with patients to easygoing scenes of the gals getting away for some welcome downtime. (The feeling of a day off from work has rarely felt more real onscreen.)

Far better than Fund’s last film, “La risa,” “The Lips” successfully conveys the sense of actors giving themselves over to specific moods and settings, and the women’s social conscience and solidarity are refreshingly underplayed.

The rumbling skies, ever-changing light and unsettled atmosphere are precisely captured by cinematographer Maria Laura Collasso, and editor Lorena Moriconi assembles disparate parts into a rhythmic flow that never seems overly manipulated. Locations in the Santa Fe province place the viewer in an Argentina that’s rarely seen onscreen.

The Lips

Argentina

Production

An Ivan Eibuszyc/Ivan Fund/Santiago Loza presentation of a Morocha Films production. Executive producer, Ivan Eibuszyc. Directed, written by Santiago Loza, Ivan Fund.

Crew

Camera (color, HD), Maria Laura Collasso; editor, Lorena Moriconi; music, Fund, Lisandro Rodriguez; production designer, Adrian Suarez; costume designer, Suarez; sound (stereo), Leandro De Loredo, Alejandro Sesa; supervising sound editors, Jeronimo Kohn, Alejandro Seba. Reviewed on DVD, Lisbon, April 28, 2010. (In Bueno Aires Film Festival; Cannes Film Festival -- Un Certain Regard.) Running time: 99 MIN.

With

Eva Bianco, Victoria Raposo, Adela Sanchez, Raul Lagger, Walter Aguirre.

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