The fate of an adolescent servant’s lovely long hair becomes a potent metaphor for Argentina’s treatment of its native population in “Nosilatiaj — Beauty.” Scribe-helmer Daniela Seggiaro’s deceptively simple debut feature poses as a small-scale domestic drama but contains a subtle yet harsh critique of Argentineans’ ignorance and dismissal of the marginalized Wichi people. Like Peruvian helmer Claudia Llosa, whose “The Milk of Sorrow” copped Berlin’s Golden Bear, Seggiaro reps a strong new female voice from South America.
Pic is marbled with moments in voiceover in Wichi Lhamtes Vejoz, a native language spoken in the north of the country, near the border with Paraguay. Only 25,000 or so people speak it in Argentina, and to visually underline how small and misunderstood the Wichi community is, the Spanish translation of the v.o. is placed not at the bottom but at the very center of the screen (against backgrounds showing almost abstract shots of nature).
These short segments, which recount personal memories and maxims from a female p.o.v., as well as some unnecessary flashbacks, rep slightly mannered additions to a drama that’s otherwise almost Dardennes-esque in the way it registers everyday occurrences on the surface, while greater, more widely applicable truths are continually being distilled underneath.
Yola (Rosmeri Segundo), short for Yolanda, is a Wichi maid employed in the household of an uptight Argentinean mother, Sara (Ximena Banus), and her laidback hubby, Armando (Victor Hugo Carrizo), who often works far from home. Preparations are under way for the quinceanera of their daughter, Antonella (Camila Romagnolo), which Sara insists has to be the best party the village has ever seen.
Because Antonella and Yola are both teens, a comparison naturally arises between Antonella’s life of privilege (though not extremely wealthy, the family can afford help) and Yola’s daily struggles to help her poor Wichi family. Through exchanges between Yola and her aging mother (Guillermina Martinez), who occasionally calls at the house where Yola works, it becomes clear that her family has to rely to an unhealthy extent on the kindness of Sara and Armando.
Sara, Armando and their offspring are by no means unkind — at least in their own minds. But as the pic progresses, it becomes clear that for Yola, some of their small, everyday acts — making her eat alone in the kitchen, scoffing at her belief in the powers of her “witch doctor” father — are slowly but persistently gnawing away at the maid’s personal pride and dignity. The physical consequences of this are beautifully illustrated by the simplest of ideas: an ill-fated trip to the hairdresser, insisted on by Sara for the party, which leaves Yola’s flowing, raven-black hair a good foot shorter and the girl literally ill as a result.
It’s clear that what’s shown in miniature here applies to Argentinean society’s treatment of the Wichi in general. But by strictly observing specific, routine behavior, Seggiaro makes her point elegantly. Throwaway actions and dialogue by some of the minor characters add shades of gray on both sides of the equation.
The ensemble, which includes many non-pros, is absolutely natural, while the pic’s technical means are modest but on the money.