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Powerful Paulina from Argentina Packs a Punch

Santiago Mitre's follow-up to El Studiente is gripping and emotional.

By Sean PatrickPublished 7 years ago 4 min read

Director Santiago Mitre’s Paulina is a sharp and uncompromising story about a sharp and uncompromising character. The Paulina at the center of Paulina is portrayed by actress Dolores Fonzi whose inscrutable face and dispassionate voice crafts a performance that some will find off-putting but that I found to be endlessly fascinating, more so than the weighty issues the film employs Paulina to scrutinize.

Paulina is a success in her field in the Argentine judiciary, on her way toward becoming a lawyer, possibly someday a judge, when she informs her father (Oscar Martinez) that she is giving up her position and her education to teach at a rural school. Paulina’s decision is a fateful one as moving to the rural province outside the Argentine capital of Buenos Aires will not come easily. The scene of Paulina informing her father of her decision is one of incredible power that also happens to be the very first scene of the film.

In one unbroken take, that mostly sticks with Paulina’s enigmatic face as she moves through her father’s home, father and daughter debate the pros and cons, snipe at each other willfully and debate the politics of the region, all in the span of a 5 to 10-minute take. It’s a scene remarkable in its audacity as much as in its scripting. The dialogue is as fiery and passionate even as Paulina herself is self-possessed. Paulina argues her point with fervent words while her face rarely indicates the meaning of the words.

From there Paulina travels to a small village where she is hoping to teach politics to youths who’ve never been exposed to the inner-workings of government and aren’t particularly interested. On Paulina’s first day her entire class walks out after she makes an error while attempting to engage them. The students walk out again the second day when she fails to engage them with a game. Paulina’s struggles with the students are absorbing and yet dizzying. While most of Paulina is subtitled, the dialogue of the students is not transcribed and those who don’t speak the language have only Paulina for context, furthering the intended disconnect between the audience and Paulina while similarly forcing us to identify with her.

For the first act, we believe that Paulina is going to be about her faltering attempts to bring politics to this rural school. But then something happens that alters the story entirely. As Paulina is leaving a friend’s home late one night she is assaulted and raped by a gang of young men. Mitre films the rape in such a matter of fact, quiet, and observant fashion that the French might call verite, for its lack of cinematic trappings. There is no music, there are no edits for a time and the camera hovers near the ground moving to locate the members of the gang as a pleading witness might, begging with unseen eyes for someone to stop what is happening.

Before you can become oriented to this massive shift in the story Paulina takes yet another unexpected turn. Immediately following the rape the film abruptly goes back in time and takes the perspective of the main attacker, played by Cristian Salguero. Without warning, we are taken back in time to Salguero being dumped by his girlfriend. We watch as he is humiliated further by his friends and the ex-girlfriend, all leading to the moment when his anger and frustration lead him to make the horrifying decision to capture Paulina, who he has mistaken for his ex, and assaults her.

I’ve likely described far too much of the plot but trust me when I tell you that the film has far more surprises in its dialogue and characters than I have described here and there is still a wealth of things for you to discover by seeing “Paulina” for yourself. Santiago Mitre and star Dolores Fonzi engage the topic of rape, the aftermath of rape, corruption, cruelty and most urgently female agency in a way that no American movie in my memory has ever come close.

Mitre hinges the film on the often frustrating but always compelling decisions that Paulina makes in the wake of her attack and the choice is controversial and riveting, sometimes incomprehensible but nevertheless engaging. The courageous depiction of the aftermath of Paulina’s attack will undoubtedly divide audiences but it will stir difficult and, in the end, unanswerable questions for anyone who thinks they know what a proper response to the crime of rape is for both victim and those around her.

Paulina is exhausting at times in its incomprehensibility; audiences with a short attention span need not apply. That said, I found the film incredibly powerful from Dolores Fonzi’s enthralling portrayal of Paulina to director Santiago Mitre’s occasionally confounding direction. Paulina opens June 27th in New York City and will expand to other cities beginning in July. If you can find this film, see this film.


About the Creator

Sean Patrick

Hello, my name is Sean Patrick He/Him, and I am a film critic and podcast host for the I Hate Critics Movie Review Podcast I am a voting member of the Critics Choice Association, the group behind the annual Critics Choice Awards.

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