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Cannes Market Watch: El Puesto

By Robert Koehler on May 25, 2012

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The little-noticed Cannes section organized by France’s primary alternative distribution network ACID (Cinéastes de l’Association du Cinéma Indépendent pour sa Diffusion) is one of those open secrets of the festival. Most attendees are at least vaguely aware of it, but few actually check out the program. A visit to l’ACID can yield some real pleasures, such as Aurélien Lévêque’s El Puesto , a mesmerizingly beautiful nonfiction film shot in widescreen 16mm and projected in an elegant 35mm blow-up print.

Those latter details are worth emphasizing. Although a few Competition films such as Matteo Garrone’s Reality and Hong Sang-soo’s In Another Country, as well as Un Certain Regard entries like Darezhan Omirbaev’s Student, are shot and presented on film, the increasing rarity of 35mm in the festival now makes each such entry something of an event. Among all film-films in this year’s Cannes, nothing has so far surpassed El Puesto as an example of superb analogue cinematography, shot by Aurélien’s brother, Colin.

El Puesto is worth noting in another context, since it represents a kind of nonfiction film that tends to have an extremely difficult time finding its way to North America. Although it premiered at CPH:DOX in 2009, and went on to play at several European festivals (such as Thessaloniki), the film has received little love on the other side of the Atlantic; as far as I can tell, it’s played at no North American festival to date. This is odd, since El Puesto falls squarely into what’s now a tradition of observational documentary that has received wide exposure in North America, with Lévêque clearly influenced by two filmmakers (Lisandro Alonso, especially La libertad, and Raymond Depardon) and one school (Barcelona’s prolific Pompeu Fabra). What we have here is a case of a fine and lovely film that has fallen between the cracks, and ACID (which is handling its French distribution, with an August 29 release date) has come to its rescue.

The film remains trained throughout its just-right 75-minute running time on Marin, a spirited and robust jack-of-all-trades on the Estancia Rolito, a sheep and horse ranch in deepest Patagonia, that great windswept plain of southern Argentina. Marin has many tasks, all of them involving unique skills that the camera studies with a vibrant intensity. They include monitoring and repairing the property fences; tending to and shearing the sheep herds (as well as slaughtering the occasional sheep or lamb that meets an unfortunate end); roping horses; and even trapping beaver in a nearby creek.

The brothers Lévêque employ a vast range of methods in visually capturing Marin’s world, most dramatically a varied use of lenses and camera placements. To convey a sense of the sheer expanse of the land that Marin is working, the camera is sometimes situated at huge distances from him, and in a few shots, Marin (wearing his usual red-colored coat) is rendered as a red dot in the landscape. In other sequences, the filmmakers opt for hyper-close-ups to capture Marin’s work with his hands, such as the difficult chore of unlatching the beaver trap or applying a lot of elbow grease to securing thick wire to a fence.

And even though Marin literally whistles while he works, his seeming happiness is undercut somewhat by exchanges he has with friends and ranch colleagues who drop by for visits to his cabin, where he lives in intensely rustic conditions. He confesses, over sips of mate, that it’s hard to live alone, and there’s a sense that every chance that Marin has for some human interaction is something he values. The unexpected feeling that results from watching El Puesto isn’t so much the cosmic loveliness of solitude but the importance of another human being.

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