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El Critico (2013)

La Reverie du Cinemá

We've had a good run, North America, but I'm moving to Argentina. Not for cultural or political reasons, mind you. I'm as tuned out as the next guy when it comes to all that. This is strictly about movies. I didn't think the notion of "kindred spirits" could extend to a nation's cinematic output, but between Wild Tales and Hernán Guerschuny's El Critico, I've found my muse and packed my bags. You may ask, "How do you know, after only two dates?"

Sometimes, you just know.

I kid, of course, but this overly romantic sentiment fits right into El Critico's universe. Rafael Spregelburd stars as Victor Tellez, a grumpy, middle-aged film critic whose life is so consumed by film that he's begun living it as one. He shuffles from one lackluster screening to the next and commiserates with equally over-it reviewers at a local coffee shop--all the while treating his audience (real and imagined) to a witty, hard-boiled voice-over.

This narration is our first clue that Guerschuny has more up his meta sleeve than most. Because our hero despises the softness of his native language, his brain thinks in French--providing foreign audiences the disorienting experience of reading dueling subtitles that are, at times, literally stacked on top of one another. Our difficulty in keeping up with the dialogue and the action in these early scenes is immersion therapy on the writer/director's part: we're as distracted by the unreality in Tellez's head as he is.

While apartment hunting one day, Tellez meets Sofia (Dolores Fonzi), a beautiful free spirit who just happens to have snatched up his dream pad. He grumbles. She radiates. They begrudgingly come to like each other. And Tellez slips further away from high-level sentience as the screenplay of his life morphs into the kind of lazy, mass-market rom-com he normally detests. He begins the film lecturing his popcorn-flick-obsessed niece (Telma Crisanti) on Hollywood's pandering, formulaic output--yet still winds up running in the rain and sappily spewing his feelings for Sofia at an airport departure gate.

Commenting on clichés isn't novel. From Birdman to Adaptation to Stranger Than Fiction and aaaall the way down to Not Another Teen Movie, new-century musings on the nature of reality and our collective obsession with escapism are about as commonplace as YA franchise love triangles. El Critico triumphs by staying grounded in the real world. Even as Tellez comments on everything through the lens of cinema, we never get the feeling that the movie gods governing his universe are lifting a finger. The fact that he comes to accept the notion of overwhelming love doesn't mean that the rom-com he's inadvertently built for himself is going to end with a Tinseltown skip through the park. He's still just a guy whose own sense of significance has been warped by decades of vicarious living.

That said, El Critico has its share of weirdness. There's a brilliant homage to Blazing Saddles' studio-lot climax, and a creepy turn by Ignacio Rogers as Leandro Arce, a young filmmaker so broken by one of Tellez's reviews that he, too, begins to shape reality with the help of the many movies he's seen. His arc is most representative of what Guerschuny (like Wild Tales' Damián Szifron) can do with tone. Though initially presented as a comedic foil to the insensitive Tellez, Arce turns out to be an extremely fragile artist whose wounded spirit metastasizes to disastrous effect. Just as Tellez's faulty relationship with Sofia is a reminder that one of the keys to romance is getting out of one's own head, the Tellez/Arce dynamic illustrates the long-lasting ramifications of casually tearing others down. Without missing a beat, and with both feet planted firmly within the governing rules of his own strange universe, Guerschuny treats us to the horror and humor of two dynamically opposed genres colliding.

Despite all the heady text and subtext, El Critico is a delightfully breezy (and sometimes tense) look at the way we look at ourselves. Guerschuny has created both a spot-on critique of film critics and a loving defense of their (our) accursed ability to see life as a compelling but ultimately flawed narrative. Based solely on profession and demeanor, it's easy to write off Victor Tellez as a boorish snob. But Guerschuny grants him the dignity of a second look--for his benefit, and ours.

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