Striking sounds. Haunting visuals. Grounded, nuanced acting and themes of socioeconomic conflict all wrapped up in a chilling story of possession, motherhood, and unbearable loss...
...If that sounds like your kind of cocktail, you’ll want to take a sip of writer-director Laura Casabe’s Final Girls Berlin Film Festival entry, The Returned. A period piece that blends genres and tones to explore colonialism and class privilege through the lens of the supernatural, Casabe expertly manages to put an effective spin on a familiar horror subgenre.
Co-written with Lisandro Colaberardino (credited as Lisandro Bera) and Paulo Soria, The Returned unfolds its puzzlebox narrative through three distinct, overlapping, intertwined episodes a la Pulp Fiction that play with time, perception, and truth. In 1919 Argentina, Julia (María Soldi) oversees the building of a fence on her property to keep the estate further protected from increasing “local trouble.” She and her wealthy land-owning husband Mariano (Alberto Ajaka) are part of the Spanish upper class of Argentina and fixtures in their isolated, rural community. They are waited upon by their indigenous Guarani staff and laborers, including Julia’s maid Kerana (Lali Gonzalez), who helps raise Julia, and Mariano’s son Manuel (Sebastián Aquino). When Julia oversteps and intrudes upon sacred native ground in order to perform a desperate act, she awakens an ancient deity whose invocation always comes with dire consequences.
Julia’s ill-conceived yet all too human Hail Mary attempt to circumvent an unbearable loss is the linchpin transgression in a film full of crossed boundaries, blurred lines, and violated spaces. From Julia attempting to push back the property line of the border fence into native territory—complicated by the fact that the laborers are forbidden to directly address the lady of the house—to Mariano engaging in illicit sexual liaisons with Kerana in the Amazonian jungle, this is a film of barriers, walls, and separate worlds, and what happens when those spheres collide. Then there’s Manuel, who is far more attached to his nanny Kerana and the cook, Yasi (Ema Cuañeri) than to his own parents to the point where he is more fluent in the local tongue than Spanish and Kerana and Yasi dub him “Jara,” a Guarani name. Manuel is the figure most clearly living between two worlds, but the theme of fluidity between spaces is ever-present throughout the film, symbolized in the motif of liquid and running water, most notably the Iguazu Falls where Julia trespasses in order to bend back a family tragedy.
This inversion of both nature and time is reflected in the structure of the film itself, a narrative choice that pays off well and consistently keeps the viewer on their toes. Each episode adds new light and shifts the viewer’s perspective so that by the time the film reaches its climax, we are seeing it and its characters in a very different fashion than we do at the film’s opening. All throughout, the fractured chronology circles back to Julia’s primal transgression at the Falls. This place where water and land combine, where the mundane transcends into the spiritual, and where life and death blend into something in between. It’s an enticing hook, but the heavy reliance on this one incident carrying the weight of the entire story does start to feel overcooked by the third act, which is a largely silent affair.
Sound and silence are used expertly and methodically throughout the film, in fact. As the story unfolds, the film gets progressively quieter. We shift from heavy dialogue, anguished sobs, and gushing water to whispered conversations, clipped sentences, and finally a pervasive hush over everything. The eerie and alluring score by Leonardo Martinelli thus becomes the chief vehicle by which to conclude this somber and meditative film. Full of tribal beats, low humming, and high-pitched shrieks, Martinelli’s score both unsettles and entrances the viewer, adding to the nightmarish quality of the film and the framing of both wide shots and pull-focus shots that refuse to let the viewer see what we know is hiding just out of eyesight. All of this pairs well with the dreary atmosphere of the setting, made all the more palpable by the remoteness of Julia and Mariano’s estate as well as the dim and shadowy lighting.
While The Returned is undeniably visually and aurally atmospheric and authentic, it slows just as it should be speeding up, though that is it’s only true flaw. All of the cast delivers solid, earthy performances that lend credibility to the period setting and bring to life this folk horror tale exploring colonization, revenge, crippling anxiety, the fear of loss, and sociopolitical conflict in turn-of-the-century South America, all of which echo to struggles of the present day. Those that “return” in the film, possessed ones that function as a cross between traditional Latin American zombies and the contemporary vision of a demonic host, become vessels of the disenfranchised. Their return signifies not only a second life, but an awakening to the systems that have abused and monetized them, and a refusal to abide further subjugation. They rise not only from the grave, but to reclaim what has been stolen from them.
The Returned is a deep film. Complicated, political, intellectual. It concerns the reckoning of an unresolved national trauma contained in the microcosm of one family’s mistakes and missteps in an effort to bypass the natural order of things. So accustomed to having the rules conform around their wants and needs, the film shows us what it means to be confronted with the knowledge that eventually, when you go too far, when you push too strongly and exploit that which you disrespect and do not understand, you will pay the ultimate price. It is a story told with shadows and sobs, silence and subtlety. It is social horror at its best, and genre reinvention at its freshest. It is a film you will want to return to again and again.
By Craig Ranallo
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