A struggling playwright-in-exile tries to stage the heroic story of his fictitious nation in “Piotr: A Mistranslation.” Spinning off from his short film centering on the same titular character, Chilean director Martin Seeger (with co-writer Simon Palacios) has created a world, set in contemporary Santiago but dubbed “Nacrovia,” that is so detailed, it feels like a fully developed parallel universe. Certainly one of the year’s most distinctive Latin American debuts, the pic could become a dark-horse fave on the fest circuit, where originality of this sort is coveted.
Reminiscent of Ernst Lubitsch comedies set in mythical European micro-nations, “Piotr” invents the nation of Nacrovia, complete with its own imaginary language (sounding like a blend of German and Slavic tongues). But Seeger takes the idea one step further, placing the Nacrovians in a foreign land where they are a linguistic minority.
This puts a writer like Piotr (Jorge Becker) in a dilemma: He must work as a playwright in Spanish-speaking Chile, but can only write a truly meaningful work in his own language. Where to find his actors, and how to manage to get grants from the Chilean government’s cultural wing when his own resident status is apparently in question? His pal Sim (laconic Klifton Kleinmann) encourages him to write a play about Nacrovian independence, but in order to lure funding, suggests Piotr write it as “a sexy social comedy,” in which the hero wins the girl.
At the same time, things are falling apart in Piotr’s personal life as g.f. Cristina (Camila Paris) grows tired of him and hooks up with a pot-smoking Rastafarian. As Piotr strives to translate his Nacrovian text into Spanish for his inept cast, he finds that language — as the film’s title suggests — is becoming his enemy.
Seeger maintains a dry, absurdist tone that plays seriously on the surface, but is satirical just below. With Becker in lock-step with this approach, the comedy is consistently underplayed. One of the more amusing comic strokes is a scroll of the harsh rejection letters Piotr receives from the cultural ministry — letters that grow harsher and harsher with each mailing.
The influence of Argentine comedy master Martin Rejtman is detectable in Becker’s clean shooting and compositions, which opt for head-on group shots and a minimum of closeups. The director’s own editing is sharp and full of unexpected cuts, with a droll sense of deadpan timing and a better sense of when to wrap things up.