The gradual death of celluloid is wistfully mourned in the cine-manic thriller “The Projectionist,” and that’s before it takes on an altogether darker metaphoric resonance — as both physical and psychological projections are spliced in the mind of a lonely traveling cinema manager. The latest feature from prolific young Dominican writer-director José María Cabral — whose last film, “Woodpeckers,” competed at Sundance in 2017 — is his most ambitious and invitingly polished to date, doffing its cap to such intricate AV-based puzzles as “The Conversation” and “Blow Out” while working its own surprising brand of melodrama. Though the drama collapses a little in its cluttered final reels, this is still an inventive vision, carried by the crumpled soulfulness of leading man Felix Germán and vibrant, sweat-soaked visuals: Never has the richness of Kodak stock been more thematically vital to a film’s success.
“The Projectionist’s” cinephilic leanings and nifty genre gymnastics should make it an appealing item to further fest programmers following its world premiere at the Miami Film Festival. Multi-platform distributors could take an interest too, though a future on streaming outlets would be an ironic outcome for a film that builds the threatened sanctity of the big-screen experience into its very narrative. The word “Netflix” would all but spell death to weary middle-aged projectionist Eliseo (Germán), who still regards television as a mortal enemy — pulling more and more patrons away from the roving picture show he drives from one town to the next in the Dominican Republic’s most impoverished backwaters.
Working out of the ramshackle truck he inherited from his father, Eliseo has been bringing joy to hard-up communities for decades, though his trade has given him little in return. At home, in his musty, paper-walled apartment, he obsessively projects enigmatic footage of an unidentified woman (Lia Briones) as a reel-life substitute for any real-life companion, eating, sleeping and masturbating in tandem with these faded, somewhat sinister home movies. Who she is, and how Eliseo came to be in possession of her image, is the driving mystery of a film that isn’t overly in a hurry to unpick it: Cabral takes droll observational pleasure in the simpler routines and rituals of Eliseo’s job, and his wary relationship to rowdily responsive audiences with little understanding of his own artistry. (It’s a poignant side note that the film he’s so doggedly screening, 2005’s Zoe Saldana-starring comedy “The Curse of Father Cardona,” isn’t exactly one for the ages.)
One run-in with a local, however, brings Eliseo a degree of human connection that unnerves him: When wiry, rebellious Rubi (newcomer Cindy Galán, a delight) sabotages a screening in her dead-end village, she offers penance by effectively appointing herself Eliseo’s apprentice. Though he regards the young woman with frosty suspicion, their awkward partnership shows him that an idealized woman on a screen is no match for a three-dimensional one who answers back. Repeated references to the Pygmalion myth underline the point a little more heavily than need be, considering the natural, itch-and-scratch interplay between Germán and Galán, whose chemistry papers over the frank unlikelihood of their characters’ alliance.
Their odd-couple relationship is one of several strands left hanging as the film’s finale takes a headlong dive into nightmarish psychodrama, complete with a twist so startling you rather wish Cabral gave himself a bit more time to unpack its ramifications. Still, it’s executed with dizzy aplomb, not least in a rather brilliant, tricksy setpiece — edited in a jittery fever by Nacho Ruiz — that sees Eliseo wheeling his weathered projections from one room to the next in a potential crime scene, the motion turning flat footage into ambiguity-laden reenactment.
Cinematographer Hernán Herrera shoots the restless hell out of this scene, layering moving image upon moving image to warped, scrambling effect, though his lensing is an iridescent asset throughout, bathed in Kodak color that feels hot and wet to the touch: landscapes of scorched yellows and biscuity browns, interrupted by the chemical magenta glow and petrol-blue flashes of Eliseo’s truck-based magic factory. Seven features into a filmmaking career that began in his teens, Cabral lets his movie freak flag fly proudly in this one. It’s kinetic and head-turning enough to net him bigger offers if the powers that be are paying attention, even if it means compromising on his infectious devotion to old-school technique.