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A film constructed with improvisation, precise staging and the potency of fables, Christopher Murray’s and Pablo Carrera’s impressive feature debut, “Manuel de Ribera,” is a spare, slow-moving tale of a man with big plans who inherits an island. Written by the helmers and elegantly shot on a gloomy southern Chilean archipelago that looks straight out of Ingmar Bergman’s “Through a Glass, Darkly,” the film gradually builds a moral drama. National prize at the Santiago fest marks the pic’s latest success, though buyers will be few.

Though not immediately apparent, the film presents an unusual spin on a story that’s a staple of Latin-American fiction: the landowner who sows the seeds of his own destruction.

Manuel (Eugenio Morales) shows up in a town in the Calbuco archipelago, seeking workers to help him develop the island he’s inherited from a rich woman. He encounters, in his words, “a town full of half-asleep jerks,” and can’t find much reliable help, even with the blessing of a local minister.

But while Manuel deserves some sympathy, he’s also rather cold toward helpful young boatman Rodrigo (Samuel Gonzalez) and ex-hooker Ines (Eliana del Rosario Almonacid), who nevertheless remain as loyal as serfs to a lord. His lousy treatment of Rodrigo, though, finally comes to haunt him.

Thesps Morales, Gonzalez and Almonacid play scenes with local non-pros, and it’s here that the pic begins to bend its tale, blending narrative staging with documentary as the characters visit with real fishermen, shop owners and farmers. Manuel sometimes recalls a scene just played onscreen, and the scene repeats itself (as if in his own head) with slightly different dialogue.

This conceit, added to the film’s sometimes hypnotically protracted pace, produces a dreamlike effect that flirts with pretension. But the pic is so conceptually sound, and well capped off with a satisfying bit of revenge drama, that it feels complete. Morales’ performance never betrays a hint of mendacity, with Manuel’s character divided between wanting to be the master of his realm and being a generous provider to local folks who need work.

The ultra-desaturated color scheme of Raul Heuty’s precise cinematography provides the film with the mood of a fable, while an extensive use of spectacular locations on the chilly-looking islands injects an expressive timelessness.

Manuel de Ribera

Chile

  • Production: A Jirafa release (in Chile) of a Jirafa/El Buen Tiempo/L90 Cine Digital/Minera Escondida/Zoofilms production. Produced by Bruno Bettati. Executive producer, Jose Luis Rivas. Directed, written by Christopher Murray, Pablo Carrera.
  • Crew: Camera (color, widescreen), Raul Heuty; editor, Antonio Luco; production designer, Jose Luis Munoz; sound (stereo), Maria Elisa Canobra; sound designer/re-recording mixer, Cristian Freund; casting, Soledad Gaspar. Reviewed at Santiago Film Festival (competing), Aug. 20, 2010. (Also in Rotterdam, Munich, Buenos Aires, Vienna film festivals.) Running time: 95 MIN.
  • With: With: Eugenio Morales, Samuel Gonzalez, Eliana del Rosario Almonacid.
  • Music By: