Spanning nearly 150 years in its portrait of two Don Quixote-like figures, “A King for Patagonia” links a 19th-century eccentric with delusions of monarchial grandeur to his would-be cinematic immortalizer many decades later. In both cases, grandiose ambitions hit a cement wall of harsh reality. Lucas N. Turturro’s playful — sometimes too playful — docu feature debut will interest folklorists and cineastes drawn to oddball lost causes, with arts broadcasters likeliest to queue up.
In 1860, expat French lawyer/adventurer Orelie-Antoine de Tounens landed in sparsely populated Araucania, saying the territory (plus Patagonia, which he later added to the claim) belonged to neither Chile nor Argentina, and that tribal chieftans had voted him the ruler of a new independent state. Predictably, the established area governments did not find this proposal worthy of acknowledgement or discussion. De Tounens was briefly institutionalized, but continued to pursue the cause up to his pauper’s death in 1878 France.
This outstanding example of whimsical hubris — which some relatives continue to exercise as heirs to the “crown” even today — was a natural film subject. Or so it seemed to Argentine designer/publicist Juan Fresan, who in 1972 launched his own messianic quest to dramatize de Tounen’s saga in surreal screen epic “La nueva francia.” Shooting with mostly nonpro actors and a minimal crew, he began assembling what looks (in surviving footage) like a fascinating time capsule. With modern-day hippies wandering the desert amid striking compositions and slippery period signifiers, these clips (sans dialogue tracks) recall similar metaphorical fantasias of the era by Bunuel, Arrabal and Jodorowsky.
But as the money ran out (and his lead actor walked), Fresan had to abandon production, placing nine reels in storage for what turned out to be many long years. In 1986, a first documentary (Carlos Sorin’s “A King and His Movie”) was made about the aborted project, despite the original director’s refusal to participate. (Fresan did actually complete a feature in 1991, the apparently disastrous “Sherlock Holmes in Caracas.”) Almost 20 years later, Turturro’s interest got him dragged into a bizarre attempt to create new scenes that would supposedly plug holes left by unfilmed script passages in Fresan’s original.
Friends, academics and 1972 crew recall a now-deceased, self-proclaimed Renaissance man who was just as eccentric as his failed magnum opus’ legendary subject. They agree on one thing: Fresan would have scorned “A King for Patagonia,” as he routinely dismissed any outside attempts to explain his peculiar life path and motivations. He was, he insisted, his own work of art, one too brilliant to be fully fathomed.
Turturro mixes things up in a freeform fashion that reflects this larger-than-life personality’s idiosyncracies, using a variety of visual and organizational tactics. Results are mostly stimulating, though they occasionally verge on self-conscious cuteness.