Three sisters take different approaches to moving forward following their grandmother’s death in “Back to Stay,” a self-conscious, ultimately slight debut from Milagros Mumenthaler. Seemingly custom-made for its Hubert Bals Fund grant, the pic drops auds into the protags’ lives without granting any background information, almost perversely keeping key elements a mystery in order to let the characters’ immediate present guide viewers’ unadulterated response. Judging from the film’s Golden Leopard win in Locarno, the device will work for some, but apart from a few interesting stylistic choices, many arthouse denizens will be left cold.
The Spanish title, which translates as “Open Doors and Windows,” hints at the old phrase “When a door closes, a window opens.” Mumenthaler takes it to heart, especially in the first half, with a number of overly obvious images of doors slamming shut and opening. However, the pic’s most interesting component is unquestionably the way the helmer constructs space, centered around a lifeless, undecorated central hallway, with the bedrooms and living room the only spaces that feel inhabited. Very little is shot outside the confines of the house.
The three sisters — whose total lack of resemblance to one another keeps auds guessing at their relationships far longer than necessary — have recently lost their grandmother, who was also their guardian. They’re in emotional limbo, each dealing with rudderlessness in a different way. Marina (Maria Canale), who is going to college, behaves like the mature, responsible one in the house. She insists on keeping everything exactly the same, unlike diffident, prickly and secretive Sofia (Martina Juncadella), who needs constant change (clothes, decor). Finally there’s Violeta (Ailin Salas), a couch potato barely able to muster the energy to put something on over her underpants.
The three come together and separate with increasing levels of distrust, until Violeta leaves a note and a phone message saying she’s at the airport with her b.f. and won’t be coming back. As summer turns to fall, Marina and Sofia slowly feel their way toward adulthood, which means learning to move on.
Among the frustrations of the script (which went through Cannes’ Cinefondation) is its refusal to explain anything not directly seen onscreen. The sisters’ financial status is apparently not an issue, but where is Sofia getting extra money from? Who is the guy (Julian Tello) in the house out back? Why does Violeta leave so suddenly? Is there really no one — family, neighbors — to offer them comfort and guidance?
The artificiality of the dialogue delivery doesn’t help; neither does the basic problem that the protags are not a sympathetic threesome. One scene goes some way toward forging a stronger connection: The sisters sit on a sofa listening to Bridget St. John’s “Back to Stay” as Marina softly sings along, Violeta cries and the camera moves gently closer. But auds will split over whether it’s enough to make them feel emotionally invested.
Visuals are attractive, and Martin Frias’ gently gliding camera conveys some of the melancholy attached to the house and its inhabitants. How it circumscribes space, and the way individuals function within their own spaces, ultimately becomes more interesting here than any narrative development.