Mexican helmer Rodrigo Pla’s Uruguay-set “The Delay” examines how someone could do something as seemingly heartless as abandon an elderly, senile family member on a park bench in the middle of winter. Carlos Vallarino and Roxana Blanco offer up moving yet underplayed perfs as a father and daughter who find themselves in a desperate situation wrought with finely nuanced emotional brushstrokes. Although the pic is told with the right degree of cultural specificity, niche auds anywhere would be able to relate, assuming they could get past the grim-sounding premise. Script is also eminently remakeable.
Single mother Maria (Blanco) lives in a cramped, one-bedroom apartment in Montevideo with her three school-age children — the oldest, Brenda, is about 12 — and Maria’s 80-year-old father, Agustin (Vallarino), who has to sleep on the foldout sofa each night. Besides working in a garment factory, Maria also does sewing jobs to make ends meet and frequently leaves Brenda in charge of her younger brothers and grandfather. Agustin’s increasing fragility, forgetfulness and incontinence, as well as his tendency to go AWOL and wander across town to visit old haunts, put an increasing strain on the family.
When Maria is told it’s unlikely they’ll meet the poverty threshold to get Agustin into a state-run nursing facility and her sister refuses to take him in, Maria decides, on the spur of a panicked moment, to leave him sitting on a bench in a suburban neighborhood on the far side of the city. Once home, Maria is stricken with guilt and, pretending to be a bystander, calls the police, hoping they’ll pick him up and put him in a shelter. But she hasn’t reckoned on Agustin’s force of will; he resists the cops’ efforts to help him, insisting he’s waiting for his daughter and not moving until she comes to get him.
In another, more melodramatic movie, Agustin would probably end up getting mugged or worse, but the local denizens here turn out to be mostly kindly souls who try to help as best they can without going too far out of their way. Shots of unblinking apartment windows with drawn curtains underscore how easy it is to overlook everyday tragedies unfolding in one’s own back yard.
According to the filmmakers at a post-screening Q&A, the script was inspired by an article reporting on how sadly commonplace it is for senior citizens to be abandoned by family members who can’t cope with the demands of elder care. Scribe Laura Santullo (Pla’s wife and co-writer of his previous pics “La Zona” and “The Desert Within”) takes pains to keep Maria sympathetic despite her actions; lending a strong assist in this regard is Blanco (“Alma Mater”), who looks properly haggard and exhausted throughout, despite her regal posture. Vallarino is likewise heartbreaking as a proud man struggling to hold onto his dignity.
Making use of extreme closeups that feel painfully intimate in the widescreen digital format deployed, lenser Maria Secco does ace work, often shooting through panes of glass to reinforce the sense of the action taking place behind a veil of privacy. Sound design by Alejandro de Icaza, Sergio Diaz and Arturo Zarate is also excellent, reprising noises heard at pivotal moments like musical leitmotifs.