A young Argentinean mother’s sixth sense is gradually awakened when she moves with her hubby and toddler to a rundown house in the countryside in “El Campo,” docu helmer Hernan Belon’s atmospheric if not particularly substantial fiction debut. Story, with shades of Poe, as well as Nicolas Roeg’s “Don’t Look Now,” throws occasional horror/thriller tropes into the slow-burning observational portrait of a woman’s increasingly unsure handle on her surroundings. Argentine Cinema aficionados might take a shine to this solidly assembled work, though it will have a tougher time convincing distribs in a marketplace crowded with more easily marketable fare.

Santiago (Leonardo Sbaraglia), Elisa (Dolores Fonzi) and their baby daughter, Mati (Matilda Manzano), not yet 2, arrive at their new property in the dark of night. The rundown provincial manse they’ve bought hasn’t been occupied for five years, and outside as well as in, it’s cold and damp. “No place for a baby,” murmurs Elisa upon arrival, though her other half is more enthusiastic about the potential of the isolated place.

The young parents are still very much in love, as evidenced by some beautifully shot scenes that immediately make it clear Santiago and Elisa can’t get enough of each other physically. But emotionally, they slowly grow apart. The sudden and unannounced presence in her home of the craggy femme janitor (Pochi Ducasse), who lives on the other side of the hill, startles Elisa so that she drops the plates she’s carrying. And at night, the house starts to make ominous noises that only Elisa seems to hear.

Belon and co-writer Valeria Radivo punctuate the couple’s everyday chores and their shared care of the delightful but vulnerable Mati with similarly unexpected occurrences throughout, perhaps leading some auds to think the pic will take a left turn into horror. But what’s in store is something more akin to a terror of the mind, though Belon’s treatment of the material pointing in this direction is so delicate that it’s not only transfigured into something quietly poetic but also something rather minor — although the film’s final scenes have the kind of beautiful and unexplainable-yet-logical denouement that Poe would have found to his liking.

Performances are down-to-earth, in keeping with the material’s bid for a tone close to realism. The bearded and solidly built Sbaraglia (the upcoming “Red Lights”) offers a physical sense of certainty that he can handle the role of father and protector of the family, even though his wife increasingly seems to think otherwise. Opposite him, Fonzi (“The Aura”), who herself has two kids with Mexican thesp Gael Garcia Bernal, is absolutely credible as an overly worried mother, while their toddler is cute without being grating.

Shot for $450,000, the pic is small but impeccably put together, with the outstanding work of d.p. Guillermo Nieto (Pablo Trapero’s “Lion’s Den”), working in muted autumnal colors, leading the tech package.

Spanish title, left untranslated on the print caught, literally means “The Field” or, more generally, “The Countryside.” Venice Critics’ Week catalogue refers to pic as “In the Open.”

El campo


  • Production: A Cinecitta Luce release (in Italy) of a Bastiana Films, Cine-Sud Promotion, Skydancers production, in association with Cinecitta Luce, Zona Audiovisual. Produced by Joana D'Alessio, Hernan Belon, Giorgio Magliulo, Luciano Stella, Thierry Lenouvel. Executive producer, D'Alessio. Directed by Hernan Belon. Screenplay, Belon, Valeria Radivo.
  • Crew: Camera (color), Guillermo Nieto; editor, Natalie Cristiani; music, Antonio Fresa, Luigi Scialdone; production designer, Walter Cornas; costume designer, Anna Franca Ostrovsky, sound, Jesica Suarez. Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (Critics' Week), Sept. 2, 2011. Running time: 84 MIN.
  • With: With: Leonardo Sbaraglia, Dolores Fonzi, Matilda Manzano, Pochi Ducasse, Juan Villegas. (Spanish dialogue)
  • Music By: