Five teenagers wander in circles around a lush forest landscape, joking and coming to terms with death, in "Lions," a creepy, mystical arthouse horror movie of sorts from debutante Argentinean helmer Jazmin Lopez.

Five teenagers wander in circles around a lush forest landscape, joking and coming to terms with death, in “Lions,” a creepy, mystical arthouse horror movie of sorts from debutante Argentinean helmer Jazmin Lopez. Although it initially feels like one of those is-anything-ever-going-to-happen Latin American pics like Lisandro Alonso’s “Los muertos,” Lopez’s very languidly paced effort comes to an enigmatic point by the end, and offers up enough arresting cinematic technique along the way to augur well for her future projects. Distribution prospects are ultra-niche, but this cub has some bite.

Shot almost entirely with a Steadicam by lensers Matias Mesa (who worked on Gus Van Sant’s “Gerry” and “Elephant,” both of which this strongly resembles) and Pablo Villareal, pic doggedly follows a gaggle of seemingly well-to-do, happy-go-lucky Argentinean youths. For more than two-thirds of the film, they’re seen only from behind as they trudge through the trees, occasionally wandering out of the frame while the camera stays behind to pan 360 degrees as the soundtrack shifts into ominous rumbles and the amplified noise of leaves rustling in the wind. At one point, a wee bit of time-lapse work hikes up the spookiness.

It seems the kids are a little bit lost, but they don’t appear unduly worried about it, although Isabel (Julia Volpato) feels the cold and frets the most. Her joker friend Arturuo (Pablo Sigal) is more preoccupied with thinking up six-word narratives in the style of Hemingway’s famous one-line micro-story, “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” Young lovers Sofia (Macarena del Corro) and Felix (Tomas Mackinlay) are more wrapped up in each other, while shy Niki (Diego Vegezzi ) obsessively listens to a tape recorder that’s captured the sound of them all traveling somewhere in a car, an event no one can remember but which offers vital clues to their existential situation.

Throughout, the helmer makes constant visual or verbal references to other films, some of which, if named, would give away the pic’s big twist. Cine-literate auds will make the connections pretty quickly and infer the secret, pretty opaque even by the end, but viewers less immersed in film lore are likely to be baffled and wonder what the point of it all is.

It doesn’t help that the slightly annoying protagonists are barely seen, let alone fully developed as characters. Thesping by and large is fine, with only Volpato getting a chance to strut some actorly stuff in a crying scene, but the stars here are hardly more important than the trees, or the camera (effectively a sixth character), or an incredibly gorgeous field of multicolored lupins that Volpato wanders through for a full five minutes.

Soundwork by Julia Huberman and Benjamin Laurent is immaculate.

Lions

Argentina-France-Netherlands

Production

A Rei Cine production with Petit Films, Lemming Films, Viking Films, CEPA Audiovisual, in association with Arte Cofinova 6, with the support of Incaa, Torino Film Lab, Hubert Bals Fund, Dutch Film Fonds, Binger Filmlab, CineMart, Buenos Aires Lab, Paris Project and Typa. (International sales: Premium Films, Paris.) Produced by Santiago Gallelli, Benjamin Domenech. Executive Producers, Domenech, Gallelli. Co-producers, Jean des Forets, Marleen Slot, Leontine Petit, Andres Longares, Felicitas Raffo. Directed, written by Jazmin Lopez.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen, HD) Matias Mesa, Pablo Villareal; editors, Benjamin Domenech, Lopez; art director, Lopez; costume designer, Barbara Arcuschin; supervising sound editor, Julia Huberman; sound, Benjamin Laurent; line producer, Emiliano Bonda; assistant director, Facundo Espanon; casting, Maria Laura Berch. Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (Horizons), Sept. 2, 2012. Running time: 83 MIN.

With

Julia Volpato, Macarena del Corro, Diego Vegezzi, Pablo Sigal, Tomas Mackinlay. (Spanish, English dialogue)

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