Two sisters from an affluent family re-explore their unusually close bonds in “The Quietude,” Pablo Trapero’s beautifully crafted multilayered drama that’s also his most enjoyable film in years. Boasting a trio of actresses at the top of their game and cinematography that constantly impresses with its confident yet unshowy fluidity, the movie deftly enters into the bosom of a family harboring multiple secrets, encompassing the personal and political. Spanish-language films about wealthy people always risk getting slapped with the “telenovela” label, yet the emotions here are real, even if they are at a heightened level. Art-house play seems assured.
Set in pristine flatlands surrounded by a stunning flower garden, La Quietud is a coral-colored dream ranch that would scream “privilege!” if such genteel good taste could ever be accused of raising its voice. It’s the home of counsellor Augusto Montemayor (Isidoro Tolcachir), his wife, Esmeralda (Graciela Borges), and their younger unmarried daughter, Mía (Martina Gusmán), living an outwardly perfect life until Augusto has a stroke and older daughter Eugenia — Euge for short (Bérénice Bejo) — flies in from Paris to offer support. The similarity between the sisters is uncanny at first, especially when they romp in bed together reminiscing of teenage sexual fantasies that clearly are smoke screens which barely disguise their unsettling hunger for each other.
Euge is her mother’s preferred daughter, and Esmeralda’s happiness at having her home increases tenfold on learning that her eldest is pregnant. As the favorite, Euge is more carefree than her sister, more at peace with herself. Though married, she has had a romantic dalliance with family friend Esteban (Joaquín Furriel) that she wants to end, notwithstanding his forceful objections. Mía on the other hand has no interest in ending her decades-long affair with her sister’s husband Vincent (Edgar Ramírez), just arrived from Paris. Outlandishly passionate sex is a constant throughout “The Quietude,” which undeniably adds to the sensation of watching impossibly beautiful people in impossibly beautiful locations, yet Trapero works on two levels, presenting a melodramatic feast on the surface while opening up darker questions underneath.
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Given this is Argentina, and the Montemayor family is rich, those troubling issues include politics, specifically the dark years of the dictatorship. Augusto’s death leads to legal inquiries into how property deals, including La Quietud, were arranged decades earlier, resulting in painful revelations that take the sisters unawares. Here’s where Esmeralda comes into sharp focus, giving veteran actress Borges the kind of wonderful gift few performers of her generation are accorded anymore. Her confessions shatter the tranquil façade where tensions always lurked under the surface, forcing her daughters even further into each other’s arms.
Gusmán and Bejo share a remarkable affinity in their scenes together, an unbounded physicality that seems almost to erase surface differences, as if they’re twins. The distinctions become deliberately more apparent as their characters move into high relief, offering both actresses ample space to create full-bodied individuals. As good as Gusmán and Bejo are, the real joy is watching Borges take charge, such as in a superb scene in which Diego Dussuel’s masterful camera follows her from the house into the garden as she breaks down on a bench, weeping. Accompanying that with Aretha Franklin’s version of “People” on the soundtrack is true inspiration.