A dying Spanish hitman makes his final journey through the interiors of Argentina and himself in the quietly surreal, intermittently intriguing road movie "Death and Being Happy."

A dying Spanish hitman makes his final journey through the interiors of Argentina and himself in the quietly surreal, intermittently intriguing road movie “The Dead Man and Being Happy.” As free-rolling and unstructured as the journey itself, the pic demands submission to the helmer’s skewed, ironic take on just about everything his protag encounters, and as with his two previous films, reactions will be divided between those who appreciate Rebollo’s look-at-me auteur quirks and those for whom they’re cinematic death. The approach is likely to translate into fest appearances and Euro arthouse bookings.

The victim of three tumors, seventysomething Santos (Jose Sacristan) abandons the hospital and, after being paid for a final assignment by Large Man (Jorge Jellinek, Federico Veiroj’s “A Useful Life”), steers his Ford Falcon toward Argentina’s Cordoba province.

In one of the pic’s typically delicious, surreal moments, a bickering couple climbs into the back of Santos’ car to argue; fortyish Erika (Roxana Blanco) decides to stay and accompany Santos on his journey (the production apparently covered more than 3,000 miles).

Auds seeking any sense of cumulative dramatic force will be disappointed as the pic moves from one disjointed sequence to another, generating interest as much through the locations themselves (a haunting abandoned spa, a residence for aging former Nazis) as through what takes place there. The final 15 minutes are the most evocative, with a rousing folk song, its lyrics composed by the helmer, powerfully highlighting the difference between legends and the often pathetic realities behind them.

Rebollo has taken the stylistically risky decision to use continual voiceover, which is sometimes illuminating (as when supplying background info), sometimes witty (as when contradicting what’s being shown onscreen), and always well-written. But after an hour, the device delivers no new tricks, and it’s often redundant and clumsy, even overlapping with the characters’ dialogue. Editor Angel Hernandez Zoido shows a defter touch with the action, which is less languorous than in Rebollo’s previous work.

Thematically, the pic picks up and drops anything that comes to the scripters’ minds, with animal rights somewhat incongruously thrust to the fore, but thankfully, abstract musings on life and death are kept to a minimum. Humor is appropriately bleak, but also hit-or-miss.

As Santos’ morphine runs out, his gruff self-composure slowly unravels, and Sacristan does well to generate compassion for a man who’s responsible for more than a hundred killings; his hard-bitten one-liners are sometimes hilarious. Blanco is a good foil, and some of the duo’s later exchanges are genuinely moving, begging the question of why helmer insists on raising so many stylistic barriers between the audience and a story with such a powerful emotional undertow.

Visually, the use of gritty 16mm stock reps a change from the clear HD edges of Rebollo’s previous work, and feels at one with the pic’s deliberately improvised air. Soundwork is artful but, again, alienating in its occasional reduction of background noise to silence.

The Dead Man and Being Happy

Spain-Argentina-France

Production

An Iconica, Lolita Films, Eddie Saeta, Utopica Cine, Noodles Prods. production in association with TVE, TV3. (International sales: Urban Distribution, Paris.) Produced by Jose Nolla, Lola Mayo, Damian Paris, Luis Minarro. Co-producers, Alex Zito, Vero Cura, Jerome Vidal. Directed by Javier Rebollo. Screenplay, Lola Mayo, Rebollo, Salvador Roselli.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen, 16mm), Santiago Racaj; editor, Angel Hernandez Zoido; art director, Miguel Angel Rebollo; costume designer, Marisa Urruti; sound (Dolby), Daniel Fontrodona; supervising sound editor, Pelayo Gutierrez; re-recording mixers, Patrick Ghislain; assistant director, Luis Bertolo; casting, Cendrine Lapuyarde. Reviewed at San Sebastian Film Festival (competing), Sept. 22, 2012. (Also in New York Film Festival.) Running time: 94 MIN.

With

Jose Sacristan, Roxana Blanco, Jorge Jellinek, Carlos Lecuona, Valeria Alonso, Vicky Pena, Fermi Reixach, Lisa Caligaris. (Spanish dialogue)
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