The brilliant road overwhelms the wafer-thin characters in “Desierto Sur,” Chilean director Shawn Garry’s atmospheric but conceptually inept feature debut. A young Barcelona swimming champ’s personal tragedy, which leads her on a quest for her mother’s secret past in the northern Chilean desert, never seems like enough motivation for what becomes a titanic, nearly impossible odyssey. Rising Spanish thesp Marta Etura (“DarkBlueAlmostBlack”) holds pic’s emotional compass in hand with an impressive perf, though it’s an open question whether enough festgoers or auds in Chile, Spain and other markets will catch film in order to stoke Etura’s star power.
Trinidad Jimenez’s script launches on a melodramatic note that requires swallowing awfully hard: Ace competitive swimmer Sofia (Etura) wins a race just as her mom dies. Sofia later discovers her mother had a secret love affair with a man living in ultra-remote Chilean outpost of Desierto Sur in the Atacama desert.
Rather than using an Internet search engine, a few travel websites and other free tools of the early 21st century, Sofia behaves more like a 19th-century explorer and impulsively treks all the way to Chile to find the lover, not knowing if he’s even still alive.
Once there, Sofia has the bad luck to cross paths with vagabonding punkette Nadia (Carolina Varleta), so annoying and deceitful that any clear-headed traveler would quickly give her a wide berth. The same pattern of misfortune and poor judgment dogs Sofia when she and Nadia get a ride from Gustavo (Alejandro Botto), who turns out to be transporting drugs.
It’s likely that Garry saw past the script’s multitudinous problems for the opportunity to use the spectacular landscapes, a la Antonioni’s “Zabriskie Point,” as a striking visual corollary for Sofia’s state of mind, which is haunted by dreams of her mother. He and talented lenser Pau Monras (who also did camera on Garry’s previous short), working in gorgeous widescreen, film some astounding physical environments that end up dwarfing the increasingly petty and empty human interactions.
Prime exception is a superb sequence in a public restroom when Sofia has given up all hope, and a transvestite hooker (Hector Morales) emerges out of a stall to improve Sofia’s mental attitude. Scene plays very much like a Tarantino setup involving the sudden appearance of an attention-grabbing character and wild mood swings, and Etura handles the shift from sorrow to hope with fine conviction.
Uneven support ranges from overacting Varleta to charismatic Botto. Eduardo Caces’ low-key rock score is beautifully judged for the road-movie ambience.