A fresh and immensely likable romance that builds to the moment its central characters meet.

Whereas most romancers begin with a meet-cute between a couple destined to be together, Gustavo Taretto’s fresh and immensely likable “Medianeras” builds to the moment its central characters meet. In the interim, Taretto’s charming debut spends its time getting to know these two lonely souls, revealing through their isolation and anxieties the all-too-familiar feelings that define modern life. Ably expanded to feature length from an earlier, nearly identical short, the Buenos Aires-set love story is unique to the Argentine capital, yet universal in theme. As such, international auds will swoon for this “Manhattan”-like homage to the challenges of big-city connection.

Writer-director Taretto is so taken with Woody Allen’s work that he even features a scene in which his two leads, Martin (Javier Drolas) and Mariana (Pilar Lopez de Ayala), tear up while watching the film on TV in their respective shoebox apartments. Unknown to them, they are practically neighbors, crossing paths almost every day without recognizing one another.

And who can blame them? As Martin notes in his opening narration, Buenos Aires is a crowded honeycomb of mismatched skyscrapers, its uneven hide disfigured by billboards and choked by powerlines — observations supported by an energetically edited flurry of visual evidence that, despite its downer sentiments, clearly appreciates the perverse beauty of it all. Martin holds architects accountable, and though the living quarters may be tiny and dehumanizing, the crowd outside one’s front door is intimidating enough to render a normal person agoraphobic. And so he sits at his computer, conducting life via the Internet.

Mariana studied to be an architect, but never quite made a career of it, spending her time instead designing shop windows. Broken-hearted from a recently ended four-year relationship, she has a flair for the artistic — imagine Miranda July’s temperament in Jennifer Garner’s body — and lives in a duplex cluttered with mannequins and creative paraphernalia. She’s open to love, hungry for it even, but doesn’t know where to look.

Each sparks up a relationship with someone who’s clearly not the right fit, and the film patiently observes as time and circumstance keep them apart. Even something as dramatic as a dog committing suicide at their feet — one of the film’s many metaphors for the hope-crushing effect of urban existence — fails to shatter their zombie-like state, despite the fact they are standing within yards of each other when it happens.

Slowly the clues emerge that they are indeed soul mates: They listen to the same music, watch the same movies and, in a dramatic gesture lifted from Taretto’s 2005 short, simultaneously defy building code by having windows installed in their medianeras — the “useless wall” that closes off their apartments from seeing one another.

Although Taretto shares Allen’s self-deprecating wit, his sensibility comes from a visual place more in keeping with the likes of Michel Gondry. “Medianeras” is filled to bursting with clever stylistic ideas, including an inspired shot in which the two strangers stand side-by-side yet oblivious on a traffic island, momentarily united amid the confusion.

That moment nicely sums up the quality that makes “Medianeras” so endearing: Though it is about people so overwhelmed by modernity they practically stop trying to connect, the pic never loses its ability to observe seemingly mundane details through fresh eyes. Whether it’s the renegade greenery defiantly growing up through cracks in the concrete and steel or, in Mariana’s view, the cases to be made for the city’s architectural achievements (one of several ways in which the film could pass for an Argentine “500 Days of Summer”), “Medianeras” demonstrates a willingness to rediscover the world around itself, and in so doing, find a love thought lost by its winsome protagonists.

Medianeras

Argentina-Germany-Spain

Production

A Rizoma, Pandora Filmproduktion, Eddie Saeta presentation in association with Zarlek with the support of Incaa, IberMedia, World Cinema Fund, Filmstiftung NRW, ICAA, TV3. (International sales: the Match Factory, Cologne, Germany.) Produced by Natacha Cervi, Hernan Musaluppi, Christoph Friedel, Luis Minarro, Luis Sartor. Executive producer, Barbara Francisco. Directed, written by Gustavo Taretto.

Crew

Camera (color), Leandro Martinez; editors, Pablo Mari, Rosario Suarez; music, Gabriel Chwojnik; production designers, Luciana Quartaruolo, Romeo Fasce; costume designer, Flavia Gaitan; sound (Dolby Digital), Catriel Vildosola; visual effects, Mariano Santilli; line producer, Fernando Brom; assistant director, Silvana Savastano. Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (Panorama Special), Feb. 15, 2011. Running time: 96 MIN.

With

Pilar Lopez de Ayala, Javier Drolas, Ines Efron, Carla Peterson, Rafa Ferro, Adrian Navarro. (Spanish, French dialogue)

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