It is heartening to note that despite poor projection at the main venues at the ongoing Cairo International Film Festival that does not let you enjoy details on the screen, the selection by itself appears splendid.
One saw a remarkable movie, Paulina, on Tuesday evening by the second-time Argentine director, Santiago Mitre that stood out for its sheer boldness. Actress Dolores Fonzi plays the fiercely perplexing title character, whose thinking and actions confuse and confound her family, her boyfriend and others.
The film opens with what seems like a single take of an argument between Paulina and her judge father, who vehemently disapproves of his daughter’s decision to quit the legal profession in order to take up a teaching assignment in a remote village on the border between Brazil and Paraguay. There she will be part of a school that teaches impoverished children and some adults as well. The judge calls this ‘romantic hippy fantasy’. But for Paulina, this is much, much more than a carefree existence. It involves a serious commitment to education. She sees this as a chance to change people’s lives in a way the legal profession cannot ever hope to.
Watch Paulina trailer here:
At school, one is reminded of scenes from the French movie, Laurent Cantet’s The Class. Paulina finds it very difficult to control her students, who are not violent or abusive as in the case of The Class. But they are clearly not interested in books, and find every opportunity to walk out of the classroom “I’m here to teach,” Paulina says. “If you want to go, that’s your loss.” This invitation, naturally, inspires most of the boys and girls to leave.
When Paulina wants to set the ground rules, the students say that this undemocratic, and in the midst of all this frustrating despair, Paulina faces a far more humiliating incident that shatters her.
A sawmill worker, Ciro, seething over being rejected by his girlfriend, Vivi, mistakes Paulina for his lover on a foggy night. He and his friends rape Paulina, and the badly bruised teacher somehow manages to get back home.
Unfortunately, the scene has been shot and edited in way that it looks murky. Was this a deliberate ploy to mislead viewers or was it to meant to suggest that Ciro himself had actually made a mistake.
The film does not flinch from showing the humiliation that follows the assault: medical examination, the needling by policemen and so on.
But Paulina is determined to get back to work even though she suspects -- not having seen her attackers -- that some of her own students might have been the culprits.
However, when she finds that she is pregnant and wants to keep the child, the movies begins to appear less plausible. It is only natural that her decision angers her father and bewilders others.
But according to a note by Mitre, he was “interested in substituting political convictions for religious dimensions” Belgium’s Dardenne brothers had pulled off something like this in Lorna’s Silence. But the situation here was far more believable.
In the final analysis, many viewers are going to find it difficult to understand Paulina’s point of view. For her, the child in her womb has done no wrong, and hence must not be punished by aborting it. Her father calls this “incomprehensible crusade”. It may well be so.
But as one leaves the theatre, a certain ambiguity begins to disturb. Did Paulina after all have a point?
(Gautaman Bhaskaran is covering the Cairo International Film Festival.)