Film Review: ‘The Distinguished Citizen’

A European-based novelist returns to the small Argentine hometown he still milks for inspiration in this enjoyable though predictable pleaser.

El Ciudadano Ilustre (The Distinguished Citizen) Venice
Courtesy of Venice Film Festival

A Nobel prize-winning writer in self-imposed European exile accepts an invitation to return to the small Argentine town he hasn’t visited for 40 years in “The Distinguished Citizen,” an enjoyable, if thoroughly predictable story pitting worldly sophistication against rural stereotypes. Other key elements involve the burden of success, lost ideals, and whether artists truly give back to the communities they’ve creatively mined for decades. Co-directors Mariano Cohn and Gastón Duprat (“The Man Next Door”) again collaborate with screenwriter Andrés Duprat, who supplies intelligent dialogue but falls back on easy situations and a misjudged penultimate chapter. More mainstream than the usual festival fare, “Citizen” will be welcomed by audiences at home.

Taciturn novelist Daniel Mantovani (Oscar Martínez) has an ambivalent relationship to fame: it’s brought him the kind of wealth few authors can ever imagine, yet he’s concerned such success means he’s not the challenging writer he was at one time. All this is succinctly conveyed in a strong opening scene, when Daniel receives the Nobel and voices his fears. Five years later, the Barcelona-based author remains too much in demand, relying on assistant Nuria (Nora Navas) to politely decline most offers, until he gets a letter from his hometown of Salas, a seven-hour drive from Buenos Aires. It’s been four decades since he’s been back, despite using Salas as the setting for all his stories — as he says, he’s never left, and he’s never returned — and to Nuria’s surprise he accepts the invitation to receive the town’s “Distinguished Citizen” award.

His one proviso: no publicity, no press. On arrival in Buenos Aires, he’s picked up in a broken-down car by a semi-cretin and eventually makes it to town, where the mayor (Manuel Vicente) warmly welcomes him. From here, the film could go in one of two directions: the Preston Sturges route, where the townspeople only seem simple and have big hearts that win over the cynical sophisticate; or it could take an equally humorous but more superior tone, with kooky, unattractive rednecks and no rediscovery of a lost ideal. “Citizen” chooses this latter direction, which perhaps is more in tune with the 21st century.

The townsfolk are proud to have a celebrity in their midst, especially one who put their backwater on the map. Some are certain his characters are based on themselves, and ply him with invitations and requests. It’s arranged that he’ll give a series of lectures and judge a local painting competition. Old school pal Antonio (Dady Brieva) is only too happy to tell the returning author that he married Irene (Andrea Frigerio), the girl Daniel left behind.

More of Irene, one of the few “normal” people in town, would have helped to balance things a bit, especially as there’s a moment when she appears to be challenging thoughts Daniel might have that her life as a teacher is somehow less fulfilling than his own. However, the moment is brief, and like much else here, there’s something bordering on the cartoonish about her relationship with crass, loud-mouthed Antonio. The script rises to the occasion when Daniel makes speeches, whether in front of the Nobel audience, or the people gathered for the local art prize — that’s when Andrés Duprat aspires to say something meaty about inspiration and culture. Otherwise, there are amusing situations and a few scraps about Daniel’s parasitic appropriation of the town for his art, but it would have had more meaning if his main accuser, Florencio Romero (Marcelo D’Andrea), wasn’t a one-dimensional caricature.

Most everyone are thick-headed yokels, apart from aspiring writer Ramiro (Julián Larquier), working as the hotel clerk, and nubile Julia (Belén Chavanne), a nose-ringed groupie. The next-to-last scene is especially out of place, though it’s followed by one of Daniel’s speeches, which aims to right the balance. Daniel’s voluntary exile in Spain has resonance in a New World country still looking to Europe for cultural affirmation, but the film feels only haphazardly invested in making such points and calls out for a more equitable distribution of intelligent commentary with broad satire, as in the directors’ “The Artist.” A pronounced digital over-clarity makes it look like the film could use a little more post-production work, not with every scene but particularly those that are strongly lit.

Film Review: ‘The Distinguished Citizen’

Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (competing), Sept. 4, 2016. Running time: 117 MIN. (Original title: “El Ciudadano Ilustre”)

  • Production: (Argentina-Spain) An Arco Libre, Televisión Abierta, Magma Cine, A Contracorriente Films production, with the participation of TVE, ICAA, Canal 13, Ibermedia, Fox, Delta, Penguin - Random House. (International sales: Latido Films, Madrid.) Producer: Fernando Sokolowicz. Co-producers: Mariano Cohn, Gastón Duprat, Juan Pablo Gugliotta, Nathalia Videla Peña, Adolfo Blanco. Executive producers: Victoria Aizenstat, Manuel Monzón, Fernando Riera, Eduardo Escudero.
  • Crew: Directors: Mariano Cohn, Gastón Duprat. Screenplay: Andrés Duprat. Camera (color, HD): Cohn, Duprat. Editor: Jerónimo Carranza.  
  • With: Oscar Martínez, Dady Brieva, Andrea Frigerio, Nora Navas, Manuel Vicente, Belén Chavanne, Gustavo Garzón, Julián Larquier, Emma Rivera, Marcelo D’Andrea.