Compared to Ross McElwee’s capriciously constructed meditations on topics such as women, the news, Hollywood and the Civil War, “In Paraguay” feels atypically passive — a homemovie whose shape and substance are devoid of the helmer’s familiar wry commentary. Having decided to adopt a Paraguayan infant girl named Mariah, McElwee, his wife, Marilyn, and their 5-year-old son, Adrian, hie off to South America. Their sometimes engaging Latin American odyssey, composed equally of curiosity and unease, nevertheless registers as minor McElwee.
Helmer’s joyous impudence is subdued by his first exploration of abject poverty, so much so that even the intricacies of Latin American bureaucracy fail to engage his satiric imagination. Plunging into Paraguayan history, he discovers dictators have managed to screw up the country quite nicely — meting out torture and oppression — with only moderate help from Uncle Sam. McElwee’s leftist guilt/outrage has little to sink its teeth into. Ultimately, he’s stuck with his own family to serve as his cast, his plot and even his future viewing public (when he shows Mariah from whence she came).