Andrea Pallaoro’s “Monica” is oblique in its depiction of characters in crisis, yet never obtuse. He and cinematographer Katelin Arizmendi shoot the film in the boxier Academy ratio, locking the film into a nearly permanent state of portraiture. They capture everyone, but primarily Trace Lysette’s titular character, from intimate and unexpected angles. Monica will be far away, have her back to the camera, cast her gaze downward, or have only a portion of her torso in the frame.
Techniques that can often play as austerity for its own sake take on narrative significance in this tale of a fractured family. As Monica returns home to her estranged relatives – for the first time since her transition – Pallaoro’s visual language potently captures the delicate walking on eggshells that takes place. The placid surfaces merely paper over a strong undercurrent of confusion, hurt, and grief while Patricia Clarkson’s ailing matriarch Eugenia begins to slip away mentally.
The largely static tableaus of “Monica” convey the fragile peace that keeps everyone from blowing their tops. Dysfunctional families are not always exploding in bouts of cinematic fury. They frequently stew in their resentments and only express those in a passing glance or an errant reaction. To get too specific with their struggles is only to sear one’s self again. In Monica’s family, this unspoken tension remains especially whispered, given that everyone decides not to explain the true nature of her identity to Eugenia. She’s just another caregiver in the mix.
There’s a quiet empathy to the decision to only explore the past insofar as it has imprinted itself on the present. Pallaoro spares his audience the need for another trip down family tragedy lane and retraumatizing Monica with painful memories. The calamities of the past do not need explanation if they can just be felt, and there are bruises and scar tissues on the soul of “Monica.”
This anchoring in the present tense not only emphasizes the immediacy of the past. It also underscores just how unimaginably far the future feels to the characters. “Monica” is the kind of film where a character will say, “there’s so much I want to tell you,”… and then simply not do so. Pallaoro finds the heart-rendering tragedy amid a family that desires the healing catharsis of reconnection. But without the vocabulary to have the necessary conversations about gender and sexuality, they suffer in silent solitude.
No one is better at navigating these tricky emotional straits than Lysette, who’s entirely comfortable with letting Pallaoro find the revelations within her stillness. He boils the language of “Monica” down to the gestural, leaving the dialogue to be mostly ornamental. Within a narrow box of expressive, Lysette purveys the full emotional spectrum of her character. It’s she who always radiates the grace and gentleness at the core of the film.
Monica is no blank slate or audience avatar, however. She’s responding naturally to the fumbling, sometimes frigid, response generated from her family simply by being present. It’s a pity that the film gives her such a bland, broad arc apart from reacting to family drama. In Monica’s ongoing journey for acceptance as herself, she’s seeking the validation of romantic partners (or simply a rendezvous). These conversations around her sexual side contain none of the specificity that defines the film’s domestic scenes.
Being vague to the point of cliché with sensual relations is one thing. But Pallaoro misjudges the extent to which these scenes of personal anguish can anchor the film. There’s an Akerman-like sense of tension that brews and builds underneath the surface-level transactions occurring. That he then converts this potential energy to kinetic energy in the form of Monica exploding in a series of F-bombs outside her car is a squandered opportunity for even greater impact.
Still, at its best, Pallaoro’s quiet film wields the paradoxical power of cinema to create pure illusion. Out of silence, there is latent loudness. Out of physical presence; psychological absence. Out of darkness, the dim flicker of hopeful light. [B]