The aimlessness of a group of young guys with too much time on their hands intersects with the ebb and flow of Buenos Aires to beautifully capture shifts of time and mood over a 24-hour period in Manuel Ferrari’s debut feature, “How to Be Dead.” Ferrari’s impressive control of his tools — most notably, stunning HD black-and-white lensing — should help make this a find for fests that showcase promising helmers, with high-end Spanish-language markets in the hunt.
Though it may be too easily dismissed as the precocious work of a young filmmaker who’s watched French New Wave, Antonioni and Philippe Garrel movies, the pic is best taken as a personal account of a youthful experience in the big city in which adventure is sought but never found.
Seemingly foreshadowing his immediate future, Ignacio (Ignacio Rogers) tells g.f. Ines (Ines Efron) a bedtime story about a man who gets so confused in the city he can’t cross the street. Ever restless, Ignacio talks while flicking his bedside light off and on and off again, an itchy habit that sets the pic’s crucial mood hovering between playfulness and something more sinister.
Ines lands an acting job out of town, and Ignacio sees her off at the bus station. From this early tone of young love, “How to Be Dead” invisibly and gracefully shifts into a different register, as Ignacio hooks up with schoolmates Nahuel (Nahuel Viale) and Julian (Julian Tello). Like slightly grown-up Antoine Doinels, the three play hooky from school and hang out in cafes and restaurants along Buenos Aires’ pulsing central Avenida Corrientes.
Ignacio is convinced his pals are being tracked by school spies. Perhaps he’s delusional or justifiably paranoid, but Ferrari is willing to delve into Ignacio’s darker side, with the character making calls to strangers claiming a phony kidnapping and demanding a ransom. At the same time, the three eye a group of cute female tourists from their cafe perches.
Ferrari’s camera is attuned to the visual aspects of the city around the three lads. Often, they take window seats on a restaurant’s second level, which allows for extraordinary vistas of the boulevard’s buildings and shops; these windows also allow those they watch to watch them.
Horseplay ensues — including the titular game of playing dead in the middle of a wide sidewalk — but it eventually winds down as the night grows long. There’s a strange sensation of being in a movie that somehow blends the high-testosterone aimlessness of “Superbad” with the lonely wandering of a Jeanne Moreau in Antonioni’s “La Notte,” with the result that Ignacio suddenly finds himself alone and unwilling to go back home and sleep.
Final 15 minutes are quite audacious, leaving Ignacio in a pre-twilight limbo in which bad things or people could pop out from behind a dark city corner.
Interspersed throughout is an extraneous set of four “interview” segments in which thesps discuss their actual struggling careers. What can be seen as the pic’s sense of playfulness also flirts with pure indulgence.
Ferrari has found an engaging lead in Rogers, who has a knack for pulling eyes in his direction. An obviously smart cast keeps a free-and-easy approach throughout, recalling the ensemble of Matias Piniero’s similarly impressive and loose 2007 “The Stolen Man.” Links to that film also include support from Argentina’s Universidad del Cine and mentor-director Rafael Filippelli, as well as a huge contribution by lenser Fernando Lockett, whose continued taste for black-and-white results in powerful contempo urban images, and who is sure to attract international attention.