(Lisandro Alonso, Argentina, 2009)
My previous experience with Alonso's filmmaking, 2004's Los Muertos, left me intrigued but also bemused. There was something elemental about the film, informing the currently au courant cinematic minimalism with an almost primeval weight, but overall it felt incomplete and not fully committed.
Here, Alonso's project is somewhat different, although the broader concerns are still intact. A solitary man travels back to a world he left behind - in this case, our hero is Farrel, a merchant seaman and a drunk, who goes ashore in Tierra del Fulgo to see if his ailing mother is still alive. Farrel is appropriately laconic (as are most of the other characters); what little we learn about him is revealed through his awkward comportment and appearance - greasy hair, angular features, lack of worldly possessions save a small duffel bag and a bottle of Stoli.
The first third of the film is almost perfect: we see hints of Farrel's emotional life, both in his tentative movements as he emerges from the noisy, oppressive bowels of the ship, and writ large on the bleak but achingly beautiful landscapes - the blazing horizon line over the ocean, the desolate peaks of southern Argentina, swirling snow over the massive stacks of shipping containers.
After he arrives at his home village, however, the film's majestic inertia begins to ebb. There's still plenty to admire - the way that Alonso can make everyday minutiae into something weird and vaguely allusive - but the human reality, presented by Farrel's encounter with his father, ailing mother, and vaguely autistic mother, becomes somewhat stifled by the formalism. Unlike the mythic intimations of Muertos, Liverpool is a gentler, more intimate story with undertones of familial redemption and discord. The insistent sparseness of the form begins to feel arbitrary when the story incorporates human relationships; it's as if Alonso is willfully suppressing his characters.
It may be that I'm misreading Alonso's intentions, but the dominant mode of Liverpool seems, more than anything else, to be humanism. More than once I was reminded of Five Easy Pieces, a similar story about a wandering man who seemed bound for oblivion, and whose last resort and potential salvation - family - wasn't enough to keep him rooted in the world.
Overall, Liverpool's virtues outweigh its faults, and it remains a powerful and enigmatic film. But it still seems to be stuck in some kind of limbo between greater expressionism and more rigorous formalism. The opening credits and initial sequence seem almost comic, and I had a fleeting moment where I was sure Alonso was fucking with the audience. But the formal restraint on display, as well as the tender (but still mysterious) ending, testify to his seriousness as a maker of Art cinema. I think he still has some ways to go, but the journey thus far has been worthwhile.