A lot of filmgoers seem perplexed by or vaguely hostile to the the work of Uruguayan director Federico Veiroj, and to his new film Belmonte (2018) in particular. I love and admire all Veiroj’s films on contact, but I understand how he might perturb others. For a filmmaker who seems to work comfortably within the bounds of story-based naturalism, he throws so many wrenches into the works that one needs an experimentalist temperament to stay with him. And yet there’s nothing violent about his subversion: he is always gentle and tender as he destroys our narrative expectations.
Belmonte’s story is so simple that there barely seems to be a movie there. The title character (Gonzalo Delgado), a forceful, driven, somewhat successful artist, seems not to have reassembled his life after his divorce from Jeanne (Jeannette Sauksteliskis), who is pregnant by her new partner. His warm relationship with his tween daughter Celeste (Olivia Molinaro Eijo) doesn’t prevent him from accumulating discontent over the course of the film’s 74 minutes. The reasons for this discontent remain unclear. A few red flags crop up: he has let go of Jeanne in word but not in deed; he may have an attraction to men that he doesn’t act upon; his instincts as a painter are somewhat inhibited, perhaps by the constraints of success. But none of these themes develop.
The slightness of the narrative goes hand in hand with Veiroj’s abiding interest in life-sized behavior that does not scale to our dramatic expectations. More precisely, Veiroj deprecates his story by steering his characters toward moderate responses that nip drama in the bud. For instance: Belmonte and Jeanne meet at a restaurant to discuss his wish to spend more time with Celeste. Jeanne’s gentleness with Belmonte works against the convention of child-custody conflict, even as she explains her wish to keep Celeste close to home. Thwarted but not overtly angry, Belmonte stands to leave. Jeanne unexpectedly gives Belmonte the coming weekend with Celeste: the perpetually clouded-over Belmonte pauses, then happily accepts the offer instead of keeping the conflict alive. No one has won or lost the argument, no one gives us the signals needed to track this dispute through future scenes.
Another example: delivering one of his paintings to a young matron who has purchased it, Belmonte is too absorbed in hanging the painting to notice that the matron has removed her shirt, even though the act was intended to catch his eye. Veiroj prolongs Belmonte’s obliviousness so long that the matron’s gesture comes to seem an embarrassing failure. But when he finally notices her semi-nudity, he takes her in his arms quickly, without any clear transition from work to play. While fondling under the matron’s skirt, Belmonte notices a small sculpture of a pair of legs dangling in the air. This glance causes him to cancel the dalliance, politely but abruptly. Mildly annoyed, the matron collapses in a chair and observes that one of her friends had had better luck with Belmonte on a similar occasion. All expectations about the encounter are reversed: no one loses dignity; no clear signal is sent about Belmonte’s sexuality; no comic trope about sexual frustration or gratification is allowed to come to fruition.
What’s most remarkable about Veiroj is that his love of low-amplitude behavior and the consequent subversion of narrative are inextricable from his vigorous formal experimentation, which can be called experimental only if it is regarded in a narrative context. Indeed, it’s barely an exaggeration to say that every scene in the film appears to be conceived around a formal flourish. A few more examples, because Veiroj makes it so easy to find them: Celeste is introduced in a long shot of her walking and talking with a classmate in the schoolyard; the camera pans with the girls as they come to rest and the friend passes a note to Celeste. Suddenly we hear a teacher addressing Belmonte, and we cut to an extreme close-up of Belmonte at the schoolyard fence, as the teacher pleasantly observes that today is not Belmonte’s day to pick Celeste up from school. The rest of the conversation is conducted in cuts between big close-ups of Belmonte and the teacher, who never fulfills our expectation that she will find Belmonte’s behavior suspicious. The shock of transforming the schoolyard scene into a point-of-view sequence is accompanied by a sudden stylistic shift that creates a different and more subjective mental space for the observer than for the observed, and suggests an emotional imbalance that isn’t necessarily implicit in the dialogue.
Another small but pleasant example: in closeup, we see someone’s hands putting pasta into a small plastic container, adding vegetables, and drizzling the pasta with oil before closing the container. When the scene is over, we understand that it serves the simple function of showing that Belmonte is preparing Celeste’s lunch for school. But it lasts much longer and is much more mouth-watering than is required for this end.
The resort to slightly disorienting close-ups is common to both these examples, and to many other scenes. Sometimes the obtained effect is reminiscent of Lubitsch, in that we must revise our expectations for the direction in which the scene is heading. Immediately after the seduction scene with the matron, we cut to an inscrutable shot over which we hear Belmonte wheedling a woman to allow him to touch her. Soon we understand that the woman is Jeanne and that Belmonte is eager to touch her pregnant stomach; the image is easy to interpret when Belmonte’s hand enters the frame to accomplish this mission. The droll humor of this outcome does not completely locate Belmonte’s emotional state. Later, a more troubled and erratic Belmonte wanders an oceanside walkway and comes across a guitarist surrounded by a group of youths who appear to be in some sort of costume. The tracking camera leaves Belmonte and moves closer to the group, eventually settling on a partial view of one man sitting crosslegged and wearing a sword and buckler. No sooner do we see the sword then Belmonte’s hand enters the close shot to grab it; the boy’s hand quickly grabs Belmonte’s to stop this unexplained act. Belmonte walks behind the boy and crumples on the ground on the fringes of the group, finally in full shot again. No explanation is offered for either the costumes or for Belmonte’s presumably drunken behavior.
It’s not always clear how we are supposed to assemble Veiroj’s films in our minds after he has prevented us from assembling them in the usual fashion. If we go along for the ride, though, Veiroj’s characters are magnetic and compelling enough to compensate for the absence of clear signposting. Delgado as Belmonte is a magnificent riddle, a rather dashing figure who often presents as distressed or impatient and yet surprises us with more moderate, everyday responses than we expect. Near film’s end he begins to lose his social sense, at one point openly insulting friends of his father (Tomás Wahrmann)—and Veiroj gives us no pleasure in the insult, clearly registering the bewilderment of his victims. Here is a director who is drawn to kindness and human connection and shows cruelty only with regret. None of the three lead actors appear to be professionals, and yet Veiroj oversees remarkable performances all around, performances based on watching and on reacting from a position of affection.