It’s easy to see what drew filmmaker Aaron I. Naar to his eponymous subject in “Mateo,” but it’s almost impossible to share his enthusiasm or even feel much sympathy for a figure who, for a good chunk of this sluggish yet disconcerting documentary, comes across as a genuinely creepy person. Indeed, if “Mateo” were a dramatic feature, a viewer would be entirely justified, after its first hour or so, in expecting a final scene involving violent outbursts, bloody mayhem and/or neighbors expressing amazement that such a quiet man would ever do such very bad things.
This is the story of Matthew Stoneman, a ginger-haired, New Hampshire-born singer-songwriter who reinvented himself as Mateo after learning to speak Spanish and developing an appreciation for Mexican ballads while serving time in prison for reasons neither he nor his estranged parents care to discuss much.
When the audience meets him, Mateo is exploiting his low-wattage celebrity in L.A. as “the White Mariachi” while performing gigs at weddings, Cuban restaurants and nursing homes. He keeps his expenses to a minimum by living on sandwiches, driving a battered car and sleeping on the floor of a squalid apartment that, at one point, must be sprayed for bedbugs. Presumably, being so thrifty — and not, as viewers might suspect, returning to a life of crime — is how he can make frequent trips to Cuba, where he hires local musicians to help him record an album of ballads he immodestly titles “Una historia de Cuba.”
And when he isn’t in the recording studio, or hanging with a family that has more or less adopted him, Mateo spends much of his free time trolling the seedier areas of Havana for prostitutes. Never mind that he’s already involved with one local woman whose baby may be his, and another whose teasing manner suggests a seasoned pro who knows an easy mark when she sees one. Time and again, Naar and lenser/co-director Seth Cuddeback go along for the ride on nighttime jaunts as Mateo — who’s quite uninhibited in his evaluations of shapely limbs and other feminine attributes — goes looking for love in all the wrong places. “He really likes Cuban women,” an acquaintance notes. “And that’s where the problem lies.”
Bespectacled and fair-complexioned, Mateo appears less like a dangerous predator than a shambling nerd. And his soft, often plaintive singing voice is quite pleasant. Still, the creepiness quotient rises palpably whenever Mateo is checking out the merchandise on the mean streets of Havana — and, later, when he’s seen viewing his mother from a secluded vantage point, but never actually reaching out to her, or his father, during a trip back to New Hampshire.
The improbable climax of this real-life drama eerily echoes the endings of “Taxi Driver” and “The King of Comedy” — an impression reinforced for viewers who recall that, earlier in the film, Mateo makes a passing reference to his admiration for Martin Scorsese. Come to think of it, Scorsese himself might be proud of the unsettling final image of Mateo as a man who can’t quite believe his good fortune, but doesn’t appear fully satisfied by it — and may never be anything other than an outsider looking in.
And if Naar really intended to leave his audience with such an impression — well, on that level, “Mateo” must be judged, for all its queasy-making qualities, a qualified success.