Class conflict is slyly dissected in “The Owners,” a compact Argentinean comedy-drama that reps the feature debut of writing-helming duo Agustin Toscano and Ezequiel Radusky, known mostly for their legit and shorts work. Set entirely on the country estate of a wealthy family from Buenos Aires that visits occasionally, the film explores the combustible combination of mutual exploitation and attraction that charges master-servant relationships, faintly recalling Jean Genet’s “The Maids” at times with a dash of telenovela-style melodrama, but all done with dry wit. Pic will have solid squatters’ rights on the fest and ultra-specialty circuits.

Accustomed to having free rein over the pig-and-cattle farm in the northern province of Tucuman when the family is away, farm workers Ruben (German De Silva, “Las acacias”) and Sergio (Sergio Prina), and Sergio’s housekeeper mom, Alicia (Liliana Juarez), sleep in the owners’ beds, eat their leftover food and watch DVDs on their TVs. When angular, androgynous Pia (Rosario Blefari), the owner’s daughter, arrives unexpectedly, the workers have to scramble to hide the evidence of their occupation and exit out the back door before she lets herself in, the first incident in a running gag that develops unexpected twists later.

Pia has come for the wedding of her father, Hector, to a much younger foreign woman, an occasion that she and her sister Lourdes (Cynthia Avellaneda) seem neither bothered nor happy about. The two of them don’t seem too happily married themselves, with Lourdes wed to inept Gabriel (Daniel Elias), who’s doing a poor job of running the estate’s farm, and Pia saddled with tubby Manuel (Nicolas Araoz), who’s decidedly uninterested in moving to the country so Pia can take over the role of farm manager.

After the sisters’ sudden, farcical return shifts the balance of power between the workers and landlords, things start to get weird when Pia moves up to the estate permanently to take over the running of things, despite her manifest lack of experience in agriculture and unfamiliarity with the land. Her rather inexplicable and far-from-mutual attraction to Sergio allows the helmers to probe the porous boundaries between classes, and the subtle dance of mutual dependence, literalized in a climactic party scene.

It’s a very neat conceit, but a little more comic mileage might have been squeezed out of the material if the editing were a bit crisper and less deliberately arthouse-stodgy. The staging, however, is eloquently subtle, playing with the camera’s distance from the characters and their proximity to each other to underscore the fluctuating state of their relationships. Performances are natural and nicely synchronized, with Blefari and De Silva repping the strongest standouts in a solid cast. Other tech credits are passably adequate, given the budget.

Film Review: ‘The Owners’

Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (Critics’ Week), May 20, 2013. Running time: 95 MIN. Running time: "Los duenos"

  • Production: (Argentina) A Rizoma production. (International sales: the Match Factory, Cologne, Germany.) Produced by Natacha Cervi, Hernan Musaluppi.
  • Crew: Directed, written by Agustin Toscano, Ezequiel Radusky. Camera (color, HD), Gustavo Biazzi; editor, Pablo Barbieri; production designer, Gonzalo Delgado Galiana; sound (stereo), Catriel Vidosola; line producer, Pablo Chernov.
  • With: Rosario Blefari, German De Silva, Sergio Prina, Cynthia Avellaneda, Liliana Juarez, Daniel Elias, Nicolas Araoz. (Spanish dialogue)