Rotterdam 2014: La Distancia

Michael Pattison

Three telekinetic Russian dwarves, who communicate with one another telepathically, are hired by a long-suffering Austrian artist (and former prisoner of Russian poet Vasily Lebedev!) to rob ‘The Distance’, which is located in the guarded turbine room of a remote power plant in the Siberian mountains. The dwarves—Scumek, Baransky and Vólkov—each have their own caravans, and set up base at some remove from the power plant in question, making meticulous plans in the six days leading up to their heist. The guard—a mutant!—tasked with watching over the turbine room in which their object of desire is located mopes his way through each day and treats himself at night to a bout of masturbation with his red high heels-clad feet strapped to the bed frame, shouting “Pluto!” upon orgasm.

Parenthetic exclamation marks are too tempting when synopsising a film like La Distancia, the delicious second feature from Catalan writer-director Sergio Caballero following 2011’s decidedly oddball Finisterrae. Like his earlier film, Caballero’s latest has more than a screw loose as it somehow manages to jettison all convention while retaining the scarcest of recognisable plots with which to plod along in its own droll fashion. Understated anarchy abounds—as does deadpan hilarity.

Deadpan indeed. Images, ideas and surreal juxtapositions clatter and collide here with all the precision of a masterwork. That’s not to say the film is one—though it might be—but rather, that Caballero demonstrates a wonderful command of the image and of the temporal and spatial arrangement of information within it. Now in his late 40s, the co-founder and visual director of Barcelona’s Sónar Festival films all of this otherwise throwaway fluff with an aesthetic sophistication that seems to at once elevate and offset the mischief therein (impeccable, tripod-fixed camerawork; superb cinematography from Marc Gómez del Moral).

Not surprising for someone so entrenched in music, Caballero’s comic timing—and in his use of duration to comic effect—is notable. There’s something inwardly hilarious about the absurd repetition when Scumek, the leader of the pack, summons various objects to him by means of telekinesis, looking intensely off-camera so that said items disappear from their place and reappear on the table before him. There’s something similarly absurd about the length for which the camera stays on a dead rabbit, which is nailed to a board through each of its limbs and ears as one of the dwarves disembowels it (it’s part of the larger Maguffin), threatening at any moment to slip off completely.

If Finisterrae sort of reworked Buñuel’s The Milky Way (1969)—presenting two ghosts making their way to Santiago de Compostela, the historic pilgrimage town in Galicia where the earlier film was shot—then La Distancia is a kind of ode to Tarkovsky’s 1979 sci-fi epic Stalker (no less). But such critic-speak is to unpack an enigma, to historicise and to ground it to the more tangible and the concrete. As some might say about David Lynch’s films—and an episode involving sexually charged, friction-caused spiritual communications here evokes Twin Peaks— it’s better to just let it wash over you.

Follow Michael on Twitter: @m_pattison

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