It makes sense that Chliean helmer Alicia Scherson would be attracted to the work of the late novelist Roberto Bolano, a former compatriot now considered one of Latin America’s finest writers. Indeed, it makes more sense than her surreal, inventively lensed third feature, “The Future,” a moody head-scratcher adapted from Bolano’s not-yet-translated-into-English novel “Una novelita lumpen.” Narrated from the future, the dreamlike drama focuses on a pair of teenage orphans in Rome mixed up in an odd plot hatched by two genially thuggish bodybuilders. Fest travel and foreign arthouse play can be expected.
After siblings Bianca (Manuela Martelli) and Tomas (Luigi Ciardo) lose their parents in a car accident, they stay on in the family apartment, trying to make do financially while waiting for some vaguely promised governmental assistance. In the meantime, Bianca takes a menial job at a hair salon (the fact that no one will ever let her cut their hair becomes a running joke), while Tomas does some gofer work at a local gym.
Things become more complicated when two well-muscled drifters (Nicolas Vaporidis, Alessandro Giallocosta) from Tomas’ gym move in and insinuate themselves into the siblings’ lives. Although they look rather menacing, the duo (identified only in the credits as “the Libyan” and “the Bolognese,” respectively) turn out to be neatniks, who in short order clean and organize the apartment, as well as wholesome chefs who replace Bianca and Tomas’s erstwhile pizza boxes with home-cooked meals. Both men also have sex with Bianca; meanwhile, Tomas watches porn movies in preparation for eventually losing his virginity.
Eventually, the two bodybuilders propose a plan they claim would secure the futures of their foursome, but which would require the most effort from Bianca. She is to provide sexual favors to the isolated Mr. Bruno (Rutger Hauer), a blind former Mr. Universe and B-movie star, and, by gaining his trust, discover where he keeps his rumored fortune.
The film takes on a “Beauty and the Beast” mood (Cocteau rather than Disney) when Bianca enters Mr. Bruno’s crumbling manse. A former movie Maciste (Hercules) who starred in titles such as “Maciste in Hell” and “Maciste vs. the Living Dead,” the disheveled but surefooted Mr. Bruno is now as much of a ruin as Rome’s most famous sights. But by spending long nights in Mr. Bruno’s embrace, Bianca gains the confidence to break free of the torpor that has engulfed her since the accident.
Throughout, Scherson cleverly pays tribute to various film genres of the past. Bianca’s opening narration, “I’m now a mother and also a married woman, but not that long ago I was a criminal,” sets a film-noir tone, as do the opening orchestral score and title graphics. A little later, when Bianca sees an unexplained light, the film recalls 1950s sci-fi. And after meeting Mr. Bruno, she tours the epic sets of film studio Cinecitta and rents old Maciste films.
Like Bolano’s postmodern narrative, Scherson’s screenplay is not concerned with realism. The story she relates is bizarre and twisted, yet contemporary. Even though mood trumps character psychology, the entire cast provides mesmerizing, evocative performances.
The tech package features typically strong contributions from her key collaborators from “Play” and “Tourist,” including the eerie lensing of Ricardo de Angelis and the air of unease stemming from Soledad Salfate and Ana Alvarez Ossorio’s cutting. The enthralling score by Caroline Chaspoul and Eduardo Henriquez sweeps viewers into the even the most improbable action.