The story of a woman and her young son fleeing from an abusive husband and father is told simply and skillfully in “Refugiado,” a well-acted and steadily absorbing realist drama from Argentinean writer-director Diego Lerman. Primarily adopting a child’s-eye perspective but eventually expanding its focus to adopt the mother’s p.o.v. as well, the picture displays a quiet confidence in choosing to withhold just the right degree of information from the viewer: After a disorienting, fragmentary setup, it moves through increasingly tense and suspenseful passages before arriving at a tender moment of honest emotional reckoning. Lerman’s second feature to premiere in Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes (after 2010’s “The Invisible Eye”) will find shelter at additional festivals en route to select arthouse play.
Due to a combination of circumspect scripting (by Lerman and regular collaborator Maria Meira) and initially vague, oblique handheld lensing (by d.p. Wojciech Staron), a clear understanding of the central dramatic situation proves elusive at first. When 7-year-old Matias (Sebastian Molinaro) is left behind at a friend’s birthday party, waiting hours for his mother, Laura (Julieta Diaz), to come pick him up, the viewer may be inclined to assume any number of possible reasons: Did she run off, abandoning him? Even when Matias is brought home and finds his mother lying unconscious on the floor of their Buenos Aires apartment, past movie situations of this nature have primed us to suspect something else: Was it a suicide attempt, or perhaps an accidental drug overdose?
Neither, it turns out, although the reality of the situation turns out to be scarcely more consoling. Laura is taken to the hospital to be treated for her injuries and makes a statement to police, revealing that she was physically attacked by her husband, Fabian, who accused her of conceiving another man’s child (she’s pregnant, though not visibly showing yet). Although this is clearly not the first time he’s assaulted her, she’s determined that it will be the last, and the remainder of “Refugiado” follows her and Matias as they slip stealthily from one shelter to the next and try to avoid Fabian’s incessant phone calls, during which he is endlessly apologetic and begs them to return home.
Scene by scene, the film slowly and sensitively shades in the details — especially in one touching, shivery sequence set at a battered women’s shelter, where Matias befriends and plays with a young girl who similarly comes from an abusive background. And when Laura, about to file a restraining order against Fabian, simply decides to drop everything, grab her son and flee, the moment speaks volumes about the long, difficult road that awaits those who seek help through official channels.
Fabian remains offscreen, yet his presence is a menacing constant throughout. In one situation that Lerman orchestrates so skillfully and suspensefully that he just about controls your breathing, Laura and Matias risk discovery in order to sneak back into their apartment to pack their bags. At all times, the director keeps the camera close to his characters, making tense of offscreen space while trapping them within the frame — a neat visual encapsulation of the idea that, despite their superficial freedom, their possibilities are severely limited. The tone of the film somehow lightens yet deepens as they make their way to a more permanent safe house in the countryside, where kind, welcoming faces beckon (chiefly that of Marta Lubos as Laura’s mother) and key resolutions are made heartbreakingly final.
Through it all, Diaz and Molinaro give wholly credible, moving performances as a loving mother and son uprooted by extraordinarily painful circumstances, complicated by the script’s honest acknowledgment of the frustrations and mini-spats that occur between them over the course of their journey. Molinaro is especially good at conveying the conflicting responses of a child who is still too young to fully comprehend what’s going on, but old enough to recognize that something has been irretrievably shattered.
If the story is fairly straightforward, the emotions always feel true, the technical contributions richly atmospheric. Staron’s cinematography makes use of natural lighting throughout, and one image — of Laura and Matias lying curled up on a bed in a love motel that has become their lodging for the night — is particularly memorable. Leandro de Loredo’s sound work has a depth and crispness that become especially vivid in the deeply poignant final scenes, set in an outdoor haven that, if only briefly, fulfills the promise of the film’s title.