Cannes Camera d’Or winner Pablo Giorgelli (‘Las Acacias’) returns with the low-key, intimate story of an Argentinian teen struggling with an unwanted pregnancy.
Pablo Giorgelli’s abortion drama Invisible, his highly anticipated follow-up to his much-acclaimed, multiple award-winning debut Las Acacias, does not disappoint. A stylistic follow-up from its predecessor, Invisible tells the stripped-back tale of a doubt-wracked pregnant teenager via long takes, forensic close-ups and unmitigated intensity — but it’s her intriguing inner narrative that the film is really about. It’s a quiet heartbreaker of a story that Mora Arenillas powerfully and affectingly brings to life. Festivals and art house audiences should respond warmly to a film of rare purity and purpose in which all the non-essentials have been excised at the service of a powerful emotional logic.
The life of Ely (Arenillas, in her second film appearance) is shown to be routine and unenviable from the start; she lives with her depressed, useless mother (Mara Bestelli), who’s unable to work or even leave the house, and her father is not even mentioned. Bored by her classes, which have nothing to say to her, Ely does part-time work at a vet’s and occasionally has sex with the owner’s son (Diego Cremonesi), but that’s pretty boring, too.
If things aren’t bad enough already — less Juno than 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Invisible could be accused by the uncharitably minded of being misery porn — Ely then learns that she’s pregnant. She automatically decides not to have the baby, which, since abortion is illegal in Argentina, is where things get interesting. Without support of any kind apart from that of a single friend, Lorena (Agustina Fernandez), who’s as clueless as she is about what to do, Ely goes off in search of prescription drugs without a prescription, entering that dangerous zone where the birth of a human being can be decided on the cold handover of a wad of cash. But although Lorena and her boyfriend assume that she won’t want the child, deep down Ely isn’t so sure.
Effectively, Invisible is a slow and painstakingly worked-out exploration of the shift that takes place inside Ely about whether or not she wishes to have the baby. That might not sound like much of a premise on which to base a script, but slowly, the viewer starts to realize that practically every scene has some bearing on Ely’s attitude to her pregnancy, and that behind her apparently passive appearance, a moral storm rages. This gives the film a rare rigor, focus and intensity which goes a long way to making up for its occasional longueurs.
For example, helping nurse a wounded dog back to health (one surreal scene, the film’s single concession to comedy, has her pulling the poor but feisty pooch along with little wheels attached to its legs) enables Ely to make contact with the maternal instinct inside her. In Invisible, even the sound of a child crying on a bus is freighted with meaning, Giorgelli seeking to be the kind of filmmaker on whom nothing is lost.
In terms of the title, Ely is indeed invisible to a state which — on the evidence of the radio and TV programs that make for a kind of soundtrack — is more interested in the austerity economy than in the lives of its citizens: Although Invisible is indeed about the moral complexities of abortion, it’s also about more than that.
Giorgelli and co-writer Maria Laura Gargarella cunningly turn things around so that it’s not Ely but the institutions governing her life which become invisible. Her schoolteachers, for example, are just droning, faceless voices, while the TV and radio, with their endless stream of bad news and quiz shows, are also nothing more than background noise. Thus, controlled though it may be, there is real anger in Invisible, as it poses the question: What kind of society leaves a young woman entirely unprepared and on her own at precisely the time she must make the most important decision of her life?
The immense dramatic weight falls entirely on Arenillas who, with the camera regularly trained on her face in unforgiving close-up for seconds at a time, is able to communicate with only the slightest nuance of expression the complex welter of emotions taking place inside her. Only once do we see a livelier Ely take over, when she gets angry with her mother for never leaving the house: Ely knows this is not what a mother/daughter relationship should be, so again the scene becomes an indicator of her slow inner awakening. By the time we get to a 30-second shot of Ely lying on a hospital bed, we’ve come to understand pretty well what it’s like to be her — which, considering that the entirety of Invisible‘s dialogue would fit onto just a couple of pages, speaks volumes about both the actress and the script.
Stylistically, Invisible reaffirms Giorgelli’s preference for naturalism via lengthy takes, controlled camerawork and minimal dialogue — the hallmarks of the New Romanian cinema which the film could easily be an example of. It’s a grim, inhuman New Romanian world indeed that Ely inhabits. Even after she and her boyfriend have had sex, he’s on his cellphone before he’s had chance to get his breath back; it’s a world where a stray dog can be operated on for nothing, as the result of human generosity, but where a pregnant human being cannot.
There is just one potent, fleeting scene of human tenderness late on, when Ely climbs into bed beside the sleeping body of the mother whom she despises, but also loves. So it comes as no surprise at all to realize that, from first frame to last, the protagonist of this deeply affecting film has never once come remotely close to smiling.
Originally published at TheHollywoodReporter.com by Jonathan Holland.