It’s a wonderful thing to be proven wrong after declaring a little-known character actor to have had a once-in-a-career moment — when that unforeseen breakthrough merely paves the way for an unexpectedly fruitful career. So it is with Chile’s Paulina Garcia, whose vibrant late-career performance in 2013’s “Gloria” turned out to be a fixed bolt from the blue, its reverberations running the gamut from TV’s “Narcos” to Ira Sachs’ “Little Men.” Now, in Cecilia Atán and Valeria Pivato’s wistfully gorgeous miniature “The Desert Bride,” it has a true and worthy companion piece.
Another story of middle-aged female loneliness and displacement, Atán and Pivato’s anecdote-scaled film is presented through a quieter, more fragile narrative prism than “Gloria’s,” as a repressed domestic worker’s unplanned pit stop en route to a new job opens the narrowest of windows onto a new life altogether. It’s a loving showcase for its star’s most finely wrought powers of expression, but equally beguiling as a display of its first-time helmers’ gentle observational acuity and surprisingly inventive visual storytelling. Speckled with bejeweled oases of color, made dreamlike through shifting schemes of framing and focus, “The Desert Bride’s” unassuming tale winds up as enticingly unfamiliar as a shoal of opalescent sea glass somehow washed up in inland barrens. A highlight of last year’s Un Certain Regard program in Cannes, it promises grander delights still from the women behind it.
For Teresa (Garcia), a 54-year-old maid newly laid off by her employers of three decades in Buenos Aires, the future doesn’t look any brighter than her past — revealed, in delicate, prudently placed slices of flashback, as one of cautious subservience and secondhand affections. The family to whom she catered treated her kindly, while she formed a doting, quasi-maternal attachment to their now-grown son, but financial constraints have forced the house to be sold and Teresa to be let go. Unemployment is perhaps less of a blow than the sudden departure of her surrogate family, placing in cruel relief the fact that she’s never forged any more intimate relationships of her own. Reluctantly, she’s transferred across the country by her employers, to relatives of theirs in San Juan; Teresa has long forgotten what it is to live life on her terms.
Halfway along the journey between the two cities, however, the bus breaks down, stranding Teresa and her fellow passengers in a dusty, remote village notable only among pilgrims as a shrine to Saint Correa: the patron saint, as it happens, of travelers. Teresa isn’t especially appreciative of the irony, least of all when a chain of mishaps —and a sudden tempest with a breath of magical realism on its breeze — causes her to leave her bag in the van of cheery traveling salesman El Gringo (played with a gruff, wily twinkle by Claudio Rissi), only noticing once he’s shut up shop and hit the road. Cue a film-long hunt for the missing bag, which may contain all she owns, but is otherwise little more than a MacGuffin, its absence stalling Teresa’s life long enough to make her appraise her existence, and the ways in which she could take ownership of it.
None of this is explicitly stated, thank goodness, in Atán and Pivato’s spare but drolly perceptive slip of a script, just as her growing rapport with the rough-hewn but soft-hearted El Gringo — who professes no knowledge of the bag’s whereabouts once she tracks him down — isn’t forced into a late-bloomers’ romance. More than anything, “The Desert Bride” is interested simply in letting Teresa be, which might sound an unexciting objective until you consider how long it’s been since she was last allowed to do just that. Once you adjust to the scale of its drama, the smallest dawnings of possibility become riveting; as played by Garcia, whose storied but tightly controlled face slowly blossoms with realisation, even a half-smile becomes seismic.
This is a film of minor gestures, conversations and incidents, made major through the difference they make to a woman who has never been the subject of any story: Garcia’s face and voice open up beautifully as Teresa accepts her place in the center. It’s a performance with which the marvelous cinematographer Sergio Armstrong (working in a softer, more shimmery register than in his collaborations with Pablo Larraín) is in perfect sympathy, blurring portions of the frame seemingly in tandem with her own raddled state of mind, and giving way to airy, iridescently colored tableaux as the inner fog clears. Atán and Pivato control every formal element here — from the chiming, whispery score and sound design to Andrea Chignoli’s fluid, rhythmic editing — with a precision that seems entirely unforced: As a story about drifting into grace, “The Desert Bride” is crafted accordingly.