Beautifully textured b&w widescreen lensing conveys everything “La Leon” wants to say about isolation and longing, visualizing the distances between people as surely as if helmer/scripter Santiago Otheguy had opted for garrulous characters. Set in the watery Parana Delta of northern Argentina, pic’s gay protag feels the solitude more than most, but only the conflicted local ferryman has a grievance that cuts through the laissez-faire communal attitude. Sensitive, understated debut may be too low key for popularity awards at gay fests, but that shouldn’t stop programmers of all stripes from taking a look.
Opening image of a misty river landscape sets the scene, the calm interrupted only by a fast-moving boat shuttling passengers to various points along the way. Captained by Turu (Daniel Valenzuela), “El Leon” is the locals’ main source of transport, making its owner a vital part of the spread-out community. Pumped-up by a sense of his importance, Turu sees himself as guardian of the locals and their way of life.
Like Alvaro (Jorge Roman), most men in the area make their living by harvesting reeds. Verbal communication is not a prized asset here, and while Alvaro is an equal part of the community, his homosexuality inevitably sets him apart in his own mind and limits his trysting opportunities to occasional encounters with stray visitors.
Though much too small-time to make any real dent, illegal loggers coming in from Paraguay become the embodiment of the threatening outsider for Turu, who reacts strongly when he suspects Alvaro of helping out the interlopers. But a scene in which Turu checks out Alvaro in the shower tells much more about the struggles racing around the captain’s brain, making it clear what’s behind the intolerance.
Rather than rehashing the usual stereotype of gay man vs. rural inhabitants, Otheguy presents a more complex picture of a community where everyone is inured to their isolation. More self-aware than the others due to his sexuality and therefore more of a solitary figure, Alvaro appears to neither hide nor proclaim his orientation, lonely sure but better adjusted than the bullying Turu, who has plenty more emotional baggage needing to be processed.
With admirable restraint, Otheguy presents the growing tension between the two men, nicely integrating their story with scenes of the watery network around them so the environment and its impact never fade into the background. The past, represented by old photos and Alvaro’s elderly friend Iribarren (Jose Munoz), forms an unexplored sub-theme that leaves a further residue of unexpressed longing, adding another dimension to Alvaro’s loneliness.
Both leads, equally fine, appeared in “Northeast,” directed by Juan Solanas, credited here as a producer. Most notable of all is d.p. Paula Grandio’s exemplary HD visuals, always captivating — whether shooting riverbanks shrouded in mist or a moon-lit lovemaking scene in the forest; gorgeous stills could easily be made, including the affecting final shot. Using a generally fixed camera, Otheguy, at first, has it move only when on the water, emphasizing the stillness that inevitably floats out of everyone’s grasp.