It’s not true that nothing grows in the desert. But the plants, creatures and people who make it their home require a certain strain of weathered, parched resilience. And perhaps a brief, unexpected dose of that arid, hardy optimism is exactly what a woman facing the onset of late middle-age needs after decades spent not just in one city, but in one house. The perceptible but shy blossoming of just such a woman forms the dustily sanguine heart of Cecilia Atán and Valeria Pivato‘s tiny but lovely feature debut “The Desert Bride“, a competition title here at the Zurich Film Festival. “Bride” is remarkable for how honestly it earns every tiny tick of pleasure it gives — for it gives many.
Its most obvious asset is the wonderful Paulina García, who after Sebastian Lelio‘s “Gloria” and Ira Sachs‘ “Little Men,” is essentially becoming a one-woman manifesto for the increased cinematic visibility of Women of a Certain Age. And her beautifully understated performance is complemented by the unwavering focus on her — literally, with Pablo Larraín-regular Sergio Armstrong‘s camera often leaving all other characters and elements out-of-focus with only García sharply defined in the frame.
García plays Teresa, a woman not only out of her element when circumstances involving an unreliable bus and an errant bag conspire to strand her in the middle of an Argentinian nowhere, but also seemingly out of step with the times. She has an old-fashioned reserve to her, a pragmatic decency that is rare in an age like this. Teresa has dedicated the best decades of her life to a rather outmoded idea of faithful service as a housekeeper for a Buenos Aires family (and nursemaid to their now-grown son Rodrigo, whom she clearly loves as though he were her own child).
Through interspersed flashbacks of Teresa, usually alone, pottering around unoccupied rooms, tidying, folding and then packing up her meager belongings, we understand that the family has decided to sell their stately, creeper-clad house in Buenos Aires, and no longer needs her services. The opposite of tumbleweed, Teresa, a Chilean expat who came to the family at 20 and has been with them ever since is now to take a position with Rodrigo’s wife’s family in San Juan.
On the way there, however, her bus breaks down. This maroons the passengers near “The Sanctuary”, a small shrine dedicated to a local saint, with some makeshift stalls set up around it. Too polite to withstand the pressure from a pushy vendor to try on a dress she doesn’t want in his dressing room/van, Teresa accidentally leaves her bag in there. When a storm descends, the vendor, who calls himself Gringo (Claudio Rissi), takes off with it unaware. Teresa tracks him down, but the bag is nowhere to be found; he must have unwittingly unloaded it on one of his stops.
And so begins a gentle road movie and an even more tentative romance as the gregarious Gringo brings the diffident Teresa across the featureless expanse of scrubby desert that is his regular route in pursuit of her stuff. Little incidents and events — stopping off to see an old friend he’s helping, or his giving her a pair of pink sneakers as a gift — makes Teresa look on the pot-bellied, goodhearted Gringo differently.
He is Argentinian, she is from Chile, but the film is not so much about culture clash as it is philosophical contrast — he so ceaselessly moving, she so stationary. Yet as one economical-but-astute exchange spells out, both approaches can make one equally tired by a certain stage in life, equally in need of a kindly stranger to renew one’s faith in the world, and in oneself. The tiny act of Teresa pulling her graying hair down from the no-nonsense ponytail it’s been in all along speaks volumes: Here the makeover moment may be so subtle as to be easily missed by a casual observer, but we are not casual observers of Teresa, and it’s like a guttering inner pilot light on self-confidence has been turned up.
Though backgrounded to a certain degree, Gringo is also renewed by this chance encounter. Similarly seeming to exist in a bygone age — he sells goods which he buys through a mail-order catalog like a Sears Roebuck agent — somehow life on the road, far from making him jaded, seems only to have made him more open. He used not to believe in the Saint the locals pray to, he tells Teresa in one of this economically scripted film’s longest monologues. However, seeing all the people come from far and wide to give thanks to her has made him understand a little more about faith, and maybe even feel it himself.
It doesn’t blaze a trail and it won’t scorch the cinema, but this slight story of fragile connection is a charmer that locates heroism in a hesitant smile. “Bride” dares to suggest that though you might have been diminished by disappointment in the past, what you are is still enough. And it ends on a gracefully hopeful note: Later-life love affairs in films often unfold as a kind of exhausted sigh of relief that the one’s final act will not be spent alone. But while “The Desert Bride” sighs too, it is not through exhaustion, it is that deep pull of pure, cleansing air that you take before the next chapter begins. [B+]