Erica Rivas dazzles as a 1960s widow struggling to absorb her loss while the world spurs her on
Set in Buenos Aires in the mid-1960s, La luz incidente (“Incident Light”), the new film by Argentine filmmaker Ariel Rotter (Solo por hoy, El otro) tells the story of Luisa (Erica Rivas), a woman in her late 30s who has recently suffered tremendous losses, including her husband. Ever since it happened, she finds it impossible to move on — in fact, she can barely take care of her two little daughters. Her mum (Susana Pampín) does her best to ease her pain, but her best sometimes is not what Luisa needs. The older woman believes — as does Luisa’s mother-in-law — that a young widow cannot, or should not, raise her kids alone. Or even be alone at all, with or without kids. It makes sense: it’s Latin America and women’s lib hasn’t yet emerged.
So when Luisa meets a man about her age at a party, Ernesto (Marcelo Subiotto), her mum insists that she get to know him. She says he seems a serious man, although he’s perhaps too vehement, too resolute, even a bit pushy. It if it were up to him, they could get married in a few months. He says he’s in love with her, and in his own way he probably is. If only someone asked Luisa what she wants to do with her life.
From then on, a meticulous, perceptive exploration of the mourning process of a grief-stricken woman unfolds. Better said, La luz incidente is more about how grief can live forever when it’s not drained out of your system. Luisa is in dire need of time, both chronologically and existentially, and it is this lack of time that Rotter examines with a great eye for detail. More to the point, it’s the collision between Ernesto’s urgency and Luisa’s lethargy that drives the narrative. How is she supposed to overcome her terrible loss if she’s not even allowed the time to do so?
There are, in fact, two paths that converge to build up the drama: on the one hand, you have Luisa’s personal difficulty to move on. She can’t help being anguish-ridden and melancholic, and she has never experienced a trauma like this before. On the other hand, there’s the social pressure, the idiosyncrasy of these not-so-happy 1960s that deem women as unfit to live alone or without a man.
Without a single misstep, La luz incidente strikes a perfect balance between these two dimensions of the conflict. In fact, you can’t think of one of them without the other. And you could add a huge and unspoken fear of pain that everybody shares.
A character study like this one needs more than fine acting, and fortunately Rotter has always had a knack for coaching his actors and La luz incidente boasts finely tuned performances from the entire cast.
A consummate actress, Rivas plays Luisa with admirable restraint, with the tiniest gestures and glances that speak of an inner journey which extends far beyond what viewers can see. She is, in fact, the living embodiment of deeply underlying sorrow. The always outstanding Pampín is equally admirable and brings surprising nuances as Luisa’s mother, a woman who cares so much for her daughter that she’s on the verge of suffocating her with the desire to see her get better. And Subiotto hits all the right notes as the gentleman caller who’s well meaning, extroverted, yet quite annoying in his persistence.
The film’s production values are equally riveting, from the eye-catching, lustrous black and white cinematography with endless shades of grey by seasoned director of photography Bill Nieto to the accomplished visuals, it’s not only a matter of technical proficiency, but mostly of aesthetics. The same goes for the impeccable art direction by Ailí Chen, which makes you feel not only that the film is set in the 1960s, but also that it could have been filmed in that time. Costumes by Mónica Toschi are just as remarkable. For that matter, there’s not a single element of the language of cinema that has not been meaningfully designed. Talk about a striking period piece.
Considering the storyline is akin to melodrama fare, you’d think that its tone would be accordingly overemotional. But Rotter deliberately crafts the drama without an inch of exaggeration or sentimentalism. This is not about bringing emotions out in the open — which is just fine. Nonetheless, this degree of restraint does have a strange effect since, more often than not, the overall tone may feel too detached. You witness what’s happening, yet it may be not that easy to be that emotionally engaged. Then again, this is a highly subjective matter so it’s up to each single viewer to see how they relate to the drama. The same goes for the film’s somewhat sluggish pace (although by design), which may rightly mirror Luisa’s sense of living in a suspended time, but sometimes might slow down the general emotional impact.
La luz incidente is a welcome rare bird on the current scene of Argentine cinema. Not only because of its extremely accomplished production values and admirable aesthetics, but chiefly because it’s superb at drawing an accurate portrayal of a woman in profound pain while tracing at the same time a bigger picture of a time when social mandates could deepen open wounds.
La luz incidente (Argentina, Uruguay, France, 2015) Written and directed by Ariel Rotter. With Erica Rivas, Susana Pampín, Marcelo Subiotto, Elvira Onetto, Rosana Vezzoni, Roberto Suárez, Great and Lupe Cura. Cinematography: Guillermo Nieto. Editing: Eliane D. Katz. Running time: 95 minutes.