A tale of a prodigal father’s return, Nicholas Pereda’s “Greatest Hits” teems with multiple narrative rug-pullers: Scenes repeat themselves with slight variations, backstories change radically, one major actor is replaced with another midstream, the crew wanders through the set, and the offscreen director openly interrogates his characters. Yet such is the casual intensity of Pereda’s players that the viewer remains invested in the domestic drama, regardless of its unraveling fictive framework. A subject of major retrospectives who is still virtually unknown, Pereda is unlikely to burst into visibility with this excellent but typically arcane work.
A young man showers and dresses, delivering a disjointed discourse full of pronoun shifts, memory-lapsed repetitions, non sequiturs and hyperbole (“In the prison of your skin … ,” “contaminate me … “), which turns out to be a recitation of the titular greatest hits on a CD he’s peddling in the subway. This rundown, or parts thereof, returns throughout the film as an absurdist romantic mantra, each character attempting the recitation with varying degrees of success.
Teresa Sanchez and Gabino Rodriguez, who have been cast in mother/son pairings in most of Pereda’s films, reappear here as a particularly affectionate, offhandedly intimate duo, also known as Teresa and Gabino. Their easy familiarity is disrupted first by the inclusion at dinner of Gabino’s g.f., Luisa (Luisa Pardo), the mother and girlfriend interacting with stilted cordiality; and later by the entrance of his long-absent father, Emilio (Jose Rodriguez Lopez), heralded by a harpsichord sampling of Bach’s Goldberg Variations and a freeze-frame.
Settling in at the family dinner table, as if he hadn’t abandoned them for 20-odd years, Emilio tries to suck Gabino into a pyramid scheme, only to be drawn into parroting his son’s “Greatest Hits” spiel, the lingua franca of the clan.
The wide-eyed, vaguely well-meaning but inconsequential Emilio is apparently at the mercy of whatever stronger-minded individual holds sway. In a particularly unsettling scene, Gabino’s aggressive best friend, Paco (Pereda stock player Francisco Barreiro), demands that Emilio kneel and apologize to his son, and he meekly, if bewilderedly, complies.
But one hour into the pic, the father’s part is suddenly undertaken by Luis Rodriguez (also introduced with a Goldberg Variation), changing the dynamic — and rewriting the backstories — of the entire film. This worldlier Emilio vaunts his masculinity with claims of female conquest and colorful schemes that include selling thongs to strippers. He reveals his artistic side, mentioning musical gigs and architectural innovations, and highlights his derring-do with anecdotes about his run-ins with the law.
Emilio 2.0 also alters the visual aesthetic of the film, taking it from a nurturing, “feminine” space with fixed camera positions to an unstable, “masculine” flux of unrealized possibilities. When the new Emilio invites his son to his digs in a cluttered apartment piled high with accumulated leftovers of Dad’s various ventures, the camera moves around to capture the characters’ perambulations as they sample the remains of different dead-ended occupations.
As ever, Pereda thrusts reminders of the film production process through the narrative spokes without derailing continuity.