Like the patriarchal, conservative society it seeks to condemn, “Felicitas” is too concerned with making the right impression and not enough with conveying emotional truth. Based on the short, tragic 19th-century life of Felicitas Guerrero, a woman in an arranged marriage, the pic offers a handsomely mounted, almost epic tour of Argentinean high society via its mansions, boudoirs and battlefields, but fails to do justice to the details of the relationships its portrays. However, as a spirited attempt to combine a feminist message with a rare (for Argentinean cinema) excursion into period drama, pic at least deserves fest exposure.
Giddy 15 year-old Felicitas (Sabrina Garciarena) is in love with Enrique (Gonzalo Heredia), and spends her time skipping gaily through the woods with him until her father Carlos (Alejandro Awada) cruelly informs her she is to marry powerful landowner Martin de Alzaga (Luis Brandoni), 40 years her senior.
Enrique turns up at the wedding and asks Felicitas to elope with him, and when she unhappily refuses, he heads off to the Paraguayan War, from where he writes her letters that never arrive. Felicitas becomes pregnant — the sufferings of war and childbirth are none-too-subtly juxtaposed — and her son Felix (Martin Salaverry) becomes her only happiness, especially after she realizes that Martin already has a family which he’s never told her about. But more unhappiness is in store.
‘Tis a tragic tale indeed, well known in Argentina, and Garciarena does well to portray Felicitas as attractively feisty (though she is irritatingly giggly). Within the limited parameters of her existence, she’s a free spirit, not unlike the symbolic frogs she keeps in jars, to which the script returns with plodding insistence. But she also has too little time and space to develop, with Garciarena shuttling from happiness to despair and back with too little in between. The final impression is of an inexperienced thesp struggling gamely with a role that’s a couple of sizes too big for her, leaving an emotional hole where things should be burning hottest.
Critically, the supposedly Romeo-and-Juliet-style relationship between Felicitas and Enrique never strikes sparks. At one point after he returns from the war, he attempts to rape her lame cousin Manuela (Antonella Costa), which may reveal how psychologically tortured he is, but also inadvertently raises the thought that Felicitas might actually be better off without him. Pic further makes the common error of confusing torrid sex with passion.
An exception to the pic’s predictable progress in plot and characterization is Martin, who, far from being a tyrant, is a sensitive soul who respects the difficulty of Felicitas’ position. This makes him by a considerable measure the pic’s richest, most appealing character. Other perfs are fine, with Awada, who is pure tyrant, superbly slimy.
Visually, the pic is beyond reproach, with lensing, lighting, art direction and costume design combining into a sumptuous whole, whether dealing with highly populated setpieces, lavish interiors, or the beautifully realized, tumbledown garden house to which Felicitas retires in search of her freedom and her frogs. Several sequences, however, simply exist to look good.