Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Romina Paula's Again Once Again, which is receiving an exclusive global online premiere on MUBI, is showing from July 29 – August 27, 2020 in MUBI's Debuts series.
What makes us who we are? Can we trace our evolution, or are we destined to seek blindly? These questions percolate Romina Paula’s ironic and self-searching debut fiction, Again Once Again, co-directed with Rosario Cervio. Paula, whom most viewers know from the films of Argentine directors Matías Piñeiro (The Stolen Man, The Princess of France and Hermia & Helena) and Mariano Llínas (La Flor), is not only an accomplished actress, but also a fiction writer and theater director. Now in Paula's co-directed debut, the title suggests the method: In a series of vignettes on contemporary motherhood, Paula plays a fictionalized version of herself, who, again and again, tries to pin down what’s become of her, and why. This quest is done alongside Paula's actual mother and son who also play fictional versions of themselves, thus blending fact and fiction seamlessly, and with great emotional acuity.
The fictional Romina's an intensely identifiable dilemma. Most of us, regardless whether we’re parents or not, relate to the feeling that we’re not the person we were ten, maybe even five years ago. But just what hidden desires and fears bring about this transformation?
Romina left behind her boyfriend (Esteban Bigliardi), the father of her three-year-old son, in Córdoba. The relationship hit a rough patch, and she wants some time with her mother. Her trip is partly a retreat into the past. On the mother’s side, the family is German, a language which Romina confesses she’s learned in a bastardized form. This idea of language as an adaptation, a comforting yet unreliable vehicle is also a window into how Paula and Cervio see personality. In their treatment, it’s conditioned but subject to introspection, and change.
In her quest, Romina is aided, but also unsettled by, family photographs. Again and again, she looks over slides from the past. In that fixed time-image, sunshine and smiles abound, family gatherings are warm and loving. The reality hasn’t quite lived up to that fantasy: There’s no physical sense of Romina’s father, and over the film lays a shadow of single-motherhood, a complaint about shouldering responsibilities alone.
Eduardo Crespo, the film’s cinematographer, keeps the tone naturalistic, with medium shots and steady camera that let the scenes unfold in a languid rhythm. The dialogues flow in an even tempo, at times bracketed by long silences. In her interview with Filmmaker Magazine, Paula said, “I love silence, and I’m not afraid to be bored.” In Again Once Again, these words acquire a ring of a fierce manifesto. Particularly when, in contrast to Romina’s interactions with her bubbly friend, Mariana, played magnificently by Mariana Chaud, Romina’s talks with her mother are clipped. Here emotions start to flourish but then die down. It’s perhaps too determinist to comment on cultural difference—make a comparison between German and Latin American cultures—but certain reserve is implanted in Paula’s family history. Mother and daughter don’t say much; their disappointments reverberate in their hearts.
Paula and Cervio play with the idea of time’s subjectivity. In a few scenes, they put Mariana and then later Ramón (Ramón Cohen Arazi), the student she’s tutoring in German, and Mariana’s sister, Denise (Denise Groesman), against a wall, to deliver monologues. Naturalism briefly breaks into a studio session, but one inserted seamlessly, given Paula’s constant play with actuality and image, essence and projection. Ramón’s monologue reflects his idea of Berlin, as an example, he says, of how “historical time is not the same around the world.” The connection of this historical time to a personal sense of time seeping through the cracks isn’t entirely clear, but somewhere along these lines, Paula and Cervio show how, since imagination and reality so rarely align, we set ourselves up for cognitive dissonance. Is it because, as the fictional Romina concludes, desire and fear are often the same?
Romina’s voiceover moves briskly enough that we may miss the bitterness that slides in and out of her divagations. But re-watching her family’s bleached-out photographs, and to counterpoise their construction of happiness, she summons her eternal fears—“Not being with my mom, going to birthday parties, taking buses, having sex,” and adds, “These things terrified me and eventually subjugated me.” It’s a striking idea, particularly since Romina now utters it as a mom. If sex is subjugation, what alternatives does Romina face for rediscovering pleasure?
Romina finds adventure in her brief flirtation with Denise, but this vignette is presented as less a realized lesbian affair than a passing whim. Nevertheless, the brief reprieve seems to open Romina up to not being so hard on herself. Within her heterosexual experience, it unties sex from reproduction, pleasure from responsibility. Denise, as a woman a generation younger than Romina, is also a promise of a feminist dream that thus far has not been fulfilled.
This is important to Romina, because so much of her quest for self-awareness is an examination of how she’s gone from one dependence to another, a lover to son. In the understated scenes in which Romina tutors Ramón, her attention constantly wanders outside, where her small son is playing. When she spontaneously almost kisses Ramón, she comments, “I don’t think he minds,” referring to her son. For Ramón, whose own emotional attachments are much more fluid, as are Denise’s, Romina’s hindrances make her seem fossilized.
And yet she tries, she seeks. She negotiates, between a desire to nurture love, and acknowledgment that she must also find a way to rekindle her own desires.