There’s no doubt a cinematographer is at the helm of “Tides,” Diego Martinez Vignatti’s skillfully crafted but emotionally distant feature debut as director. The Argentinian lenser (“Battle in Heaven,” “Japon”), now a resident in Belgium, turns to the empty beaches of his home country for this tale of a woman whose tragic loss drives her to escape from the world. Pic boasts great camerawork but auds are likely to find the protag either impenetrable or affecting. “Tides” is an ideal fest item, though chances beyond the circuit are slim.
With just two spare shots, Vignatti immediately sets a minimalist, quiet tone: Azul (Eugenia Ramirez Miori) survives a car accident, but her husband and son are killed. Once out of the hospital, she heads for a shack on a deserted beach and hides herself away from the world.
“Basic” is too broad a word to describe the corrugated-iron-and-flotsam hut she’s living in. She journeys out only for the long trek to a fresh-water well, a metal container strapped to her back in her own version of the Road to Calvary.
A wounded dog becomes the first thing she takes an interest in, nursing her back to health when the local vet (Omar Dalla Zanna) tells her the dog will be put down if she doesn’t claim her. Still pushing herself to exhaustion and quite possibly oblivion, Azul speaks her first lines 55 minutes in, when she wakes from a dead faint and urges fisherman (Eduardo “Bandido” Leivar) to “give me a son.”
Such is the basic plot. Seventy percent of the pic was improvised, through the style was meticulously planned out and rigidly followed. Vignatti wastes nothing (budget was approximately $52,000), and there are no extraneous movements or images. Editing is pared to a minimum, with long traveling shots taking the place of interruptive cuts.
Viewers will be divided over whether these distancing elements reproduce Azul’s mental state or keep sympathy at arm’s length. For the most part emotional attachment remains elusive, as Ramirez Miori, a tango dancer and teacher, is an impenetrable void, maintaining an enigmatic blankness that’s difficult to interpret.
When she suddenly begins to smile and hum after her liaison with the fisherman, the temporary tonal shift feels singularly ill-advised. The main character in the similarly themed Argentine pic “Born and Bred” likewise can’t escape a deadening numbness, but unlike Azul, he’s able to exhibit grief in a way that lets auds into his character.
Visually, pic seems to owe something to the landscapes of Andrew Wyeth, and much like that painter, Vignatti uses light in highly specific ways. At first harsh and almost too bright (skies are white rather than blue), tonalities gradually become less bleached, slightly warm rather than scalding. Title could very well have been “Figure in an Empty Landscape,” with the most screen time spent following Azul slowly crossing the Sahara-like dunes in search of water.
Unsurprisingly, music is used sparingly, though intro shots of the sea are accompanied by Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, a perhaps overused but nevertheless ideal mood-setter.