Ely, the unhappily pregnant, perpetually sidelined 17-year-old heroine of “Invisible,” may not quite live up to the title’s description just yet, but you sense she’s heartbreakingly close to slipping from the world’s view. That danger makes Argentinian director Pablo Giorgelli’s sympathetic camera cling all the more insistently to her in this no-frills, no-tricks, no-mercy exercise in close-up social realism: Played with marked insight and silent resilience by Mora Arenillas, she’s in practically every frame of the film, her subtle expressive range tested and expanded with every emotional trial thrown at her character.
For Giorgelli, who swept an armful of major festival prizes including the Cannes Camera d’Or for his minimalist 2011 debut “Las Acacias,” his follow-up’s similarly spartan humanism doesn’t represent a significant step forward, but it’s accomplished and affecting on its contained terms. With its bleaker psychological outlook and more overcast visual style, “Invisible” may struggle to match its predecessor’s buzz-assisted spread of international distribution, but festival programmers will warmly embrace Giorgelli’s long-awaited return.
It’s who you don’t see on screen in “Invisible,” oddly enough, that gradually clues you into the oppressive nature of Ely’s prematurely stalled young life. Her teachers at school, almost as in a “Peanuts” cartoon, are present merely as droning background voices, indifferent to the understanding or otherwise of their students. Her depressive, possibly agoraphobic mother (Mara Bestelli) goes unglimpsed for so long that we briefly wonder if Ely somehow lives alone — though the question then persists of why she needs to sleep every night on a threadbare living-room sofa. Small, salient details like these build up to an urgent portrait of barely-getting-by working-class existence, without the film ever taking on the peering, patronizing gaze of poverty porn. The sheer concentration of the camera’s perspective on her, to the exclusion of so much else, only intensifies her aura of aloneness.
Which is not, to be clear, quite the same as loneliness: Ely has friends, colleagues and even a part-time lover in Raul (Diego Cremonisi), the adult son of a veterinarian for whom she works outside school hours. These are contacts she can confide in to a point, but who can’t offer her either the requisite practical or emotional support when the chips are down — and the chips plummet despairingly when she finds herself accidentally pregnant by Diego, in a country where abortion is severely restricted by law. Panicked to the point of petrification on the inside, Ely’s first outward response is to soldier on with her daily routine, as if by some miracle of immaculate deconception, the problem might just go away — or perhaps, at a level she won’t admit even to herself, she doesn’t want rid of it at all.
As “Invisible” unassumingly investigates the realities and technicalities of the underground abortion racket, it’s hard not to be reminded of Cristian Mungiu’s “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” — a comparison sustained by the film’s chilly, steely palette, patiently held long takes and quiet matter-of-factness of tone. Its political commentary on the institutional hamstringing of young women like Ely isn’t quite as pointed, but the film’s social observations are nonetheless textured and subtly expansive, alluding to a cross-generational culture of patriarchal preference well beyond her individual quandary. While a complex love-hate relationship between Ely and her mother is gradually sketched out, no father or father figure is in evidence — all-female households like this one, it seems, are only too easily left to languish in society’s margins.
Giorgelli’s spare storytelling style does occasionally pall into outright stasis, given little lift by the stripped, ash-dusted filmmaking. It’s not the fleetest-feeling 87 minutes, though its economy of form and scripting, particularly in an extended, wordless opening stretch, works to the benefit of Ely as a fully formed character: Scenes spent simply watching her at her daily routine, in its most active and inactive stretches, are time well spent. It’s as a modest but dedicated showcase for Arenillas, her face alive with fear, exasperation and questioning even when her character feels most depleted, that “Invisible” sticks most stubbornly in the mind.