The Argentinian director Celina Murga’s exquisite feel for small-town life, and of the private worlds inhabited by children and adolescents, is on full display in “The Third Side of the River.” A coming-of-age story of sorts, centered on the efforts of an angry, confused young man (terrific newcomer Alian Devetac) to break free of a broken family, Murga’s third fiction feature (after “Ana and the Others” and “A Week Alone”) is a typically modest but beautifully achieved film in which the most important things remain unspoken and placid surfaces belie cauldrons of violent emotion. Though a tough sell commercially, the pic should see lots of fest play, and will do much to put its brooding teen star on the radar of casting agents around the world.
It’s easy to see why Martin Scorsese, who presented “A Week Alone” for its U.S. release and carries an executive producer credit here, has taken such a keen interest in Murga’s work. She is, not unlike the young Scorsese himself, very much a “neighborhood” filmmaker, who renders her native milieu — the sleepy provincial towns of Entre Rios, north of Buenos Aires — with an intensely lyrical, sensuous gaze. Wherever Murga puts her camera, you feel her deep familiarity with these people and this place — how people talk (to each other, and behind each other’s backs), what they eat, how they sleep, how the humidity hangs in the air on a late summer afternoon, and how the rain comes sheeting down like a balm for the soul.
“The Third Side of the River” introduces us to a family whose unusual living arrangement has existed for so long that it has ceased to seem abnormal. There is a mother, Nilda (Gaby Ferrero), and three children: teenagers Nicolas (Devetac) and Andrea (Irina Wetzel) and younger Esteban (Tomas Omacini). There is also a father called Jorge (Daniel Veronese), but he is not married to Nilda and, despite his frequent appearances, doesn’t live with the family. Rather, he hangs his hat across town, with his official wife and another son, Lautaro (Dylan Agostini Vandenbosch), who attends the same school as his half-siblings and shares outings with them after school and on weekends.
Life in these two households is anything but equal, which Murga conveys in typically subtle but penetrating details. Chez Nilda, the conditions are loving but crowded, with Nicolas sleeping on a convertible sofa in the living room and money an ever-present concern (despite Jorge’s frequent gifts). Over at Jorge’s place, there is ample space and a swimming pool to boot. But the times are a-changin’ when Murga’s film begins: Andrea, 14, is in the throes of preparations for her quinceanera, while Nicolas, 17, is on the cusp of adulthood — a fact not lost on Jorge, a doctor who wants his eldest son to follow in his career footsteps. He lands Nicolas a part-time job as a lab assistant and elsewhere takes a more active role in his life, showing him the ropes on the small cattle ranch that’s been in Jorge’s family for generations, and even trying to get him laid. But the more Jorge labors to groom Nicolas in his image, the more we come to see that there is no one in the world the boy wants less to become.
Slowly, almost imperceptibly, a subterranean tension enters the film. At school, Nicolas gets into a fight with the playground bullies who are forever taunting his half-brother, but beyond that, don’t expect any big emotional fireworks — that’s not Murga’s style. Hers is a game of inches, where latent tensions hang in the air like unexploded bombs, and the way two characters’ eyes meet briefly in the street ripples through the film with seismic force. Much of this plays out on the face of Devetac, a non-professional (like most of Murga’s cast) who has large, sad, gray-green eyes, a clenched jaw, and the distant yet combustible look of someone desperately struggling to make sense of his world. The less Devetac does, the more the camera seems to love him, but just beneath his stoic exterior there are the stirrings of a private madness, like the young Lou Castel in Marco Bellocchio’s “Fists in the Pocket,” a film Murga’s sometimes recalls in its sense of a family that comes to feel like a prison.
Murga’s films — and “Third Side” will prove no exception — tend to draw the criticism that “not much happens” in them, which is true enough if one only pays attention to what’s on the surface and out in the open. But just below, everything is simmering to a boil, the walls of this strange circumscribed world are beginning to cave, and the center can no longer hold.
Veronese, a veteran theater director making his film acting debut, is another standout here, projecting just the right air of casual arrogance for a man who has scarcely encountered a problem he couldn’t solve by opening his wallet. D.p. Diego Poleri’s warm light and lyrical framings, together with Federico Billordo’s hyper-crisp sound recording, prove invaluable to Murga’s immersive aesthetic.