Thursday, 14 April 2011

la casa muda (d. gustavo hernandez, w. oscar estevez)

Once again, a Uruguayan film on release in London. A Uruguayan film, no mas, starring Jerry, from Harold Pinter's Betrayal. Looking haggard and decadent and far too old to play Jerry, which Snr Alonso probably is. But his abilities as an actor helped him to overcome this issue on stage. And, let's be honest, his abilities as an actor aren't really tested here. Nor are the abilities of any of the other actors, of which there are approximately two. This film isn't about the acting. It's not about much really, at a slight 74 minutes. So, what you may ask, are it, and Jerry, doing here, in London town?

Casa Muda is a genre piece, made in a country that's making perhaps half a dozen films a year now. Casa Muda, a horror made with three actors, a house, a digital camera and a well-conceived sound design, would be among the cheapest of them. But somehow it's ended up getting a world wide distribution deal and selling itself for the already-in-production Hollywood remake. It's not the scariest horror movie ever made, it's not the goriest, but it might be one of the most intelligent.

The piece contains two key conceits. Firstly that it's filmed in a single take, apart from the significant coda. Whether this is true or not - the man on my right said there were lots of cuts and he found them distracting - doesn't matter too much. This is a selling point, and it's well enough done for it to have worked. The effect of this seemingly endless take is to create a piece of cinema that feels as much like a piece of classical music as a film. Hence the significance of the sound design. It has its longeurs - the opening is veering on the dull - it builds towards a finale, and within its progress it has sudden, violent crescendos. If you go with it, it's kind of hypnotic, and uses cinema in a shrewd, non-linguistic manner. The extended, real-time take heightens all of this and not only works on an aesthetic level, it's also a great selling point.

The second conceit is, to a certain extent, revealed by the title. A more precise translation than the working one of "The Silent House' would have been 'The Dumb House'. You can see why the distributors didn't go for that. However, the point about a dumb house is that it doesn't speak. Yet, this is a house that speaks all the time - it clanks and groans and makes scary noises. The title therefore gives away the twist, which isn't worth disclosing here. On one level its a ridiculous twist, as the Uruguayan paper, La Diaria, observed. On the other, it is a functioning twist. It seems to me the writers of the film were smart enough to know that in order to make something distinctive, they needed to come up with an effective functioning twist and they did so. The twist is more important than the viability of the twist. (Even if Bradshaw in The Guardian appeared beguiled by it.) Judged on the level of a horror film it may not be the greatest twist of all time, but it doesn't have to be. After all, it is just a horror movie. Or at least it will just be marketed as such. And this is key to the film's capacity for success. Which, on it's own terms, a little no-budget film made in the backwoods of San Jose, it has undoubtedly been.

Looking at Casa Muda from a perspective of Uruguayan cinema, I'd say, in spite of the fact it's not my cup of tea, that it marks an advance in an emerging industry. Anyone will tell you that the hardest nut to crack is genre. The way in which the film plays up to its limitations, doesn't try to be anything more than the canny piece of filmmaking it is, seems, again, intelligent. Its very simplicity will allow people to impose readings on it in years to come it doesn't seem to be seeking. It's also an object lesson in how to approach the David and Goliath world of the film business. Until you reach the top, your film is always going to be struggling to compete with the production values of films with bigger budgets and bigger stars. (Bigger than Snr Alonso, you might be saying, but yes, sadly, this too is true.) Given this, you can either become an auteur, and a great deal of developing world cinema is auteur lead, and all the richer for it; or you can take the industry on at its own game using the one tool money cannot buy - your intelligence. Hernandez and Estevez demonstrate plenty of this. Not so much in the quality of their product, more in the quality of their intercession with the industry, an intercession which would seem to have paid off handsomely.

Even if Gustavo only earned about $1000 for his grisly work. Nevertheless, the closing credits perhaps made it all worthwhile, no matter how meagre the fee.

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