By 15 April, 2012

Medianeras (Sidewalls) by the Argentine Gustavo Taretto, is a comic and rather touching lesson on that deadly proxy for life — virtual reality.

The film opens with a metaphoric view of the urban mishmash of downtown Buenos Aires: the city that planning forgot, which “turns its back on the river” and where a single storey building can abut a multi-storey apartment block, and often does. The blank sidewalls which result from the towering disparity in height are the usually windowless medianeras of the title, a featureless plane but for directions to supermarkets or product advertisements. Life in these blocks is frequently a shoebox existence which tends to get worse the further you get from the “alpha” end of the “bet”.

The main characters, Martin (Javier Drolas) and Mariana (Pilar López de Ayala), are near-neighbours who’ve retreated after failed relationships and are being slowly strangled by the wired and wireless reality they’ve substituted for them.

Martin, pinned down by his fear of flying, is left with his girlfriend’s dog when she leaves for New York never to return. He’s a web designer who sees his own neuroses (of which he has many) played out in the cityscape that surrounds him. On his own admittance the only psychological defect he doesn’t have is a suicidal tendency. He has few outlets other than his success at a virtual sleeping tablets game, akin to space invaders for insomniacs (found on a psychologist’s website), virtual tennis, virtual criminality and his perfunctory flings with Ana (Inés Efron), the dog walker, whom he insists on accompanying on walks.

Mariana is an architect who works as a window dresser. She is as isolated and as dysfunctional as Martin except her issues concern a fear of lifts and intimacy. She takes erotic comfort in her collection of male shop mannequins. “Don’t get any false ideas,” she says, “It was just sex.”

The scene looks set for digitised virtual oblivion. There are examples of this in Mariana’s treatment of her photographs. Will she go the same way as her former boyfriend? Four clicks and all record of their four years are expunged. The ephemeral nature of her world vies with the real world. Unsaid, the struggle for reality begins to assert itself in her just as life issues from the unpromising crumbling fabric of Buenos Aires in the illegal sidewall windows which puncture this space – sometimes in the most unlikely and symbolic of places.

The film’s dialogue is minimal as befits the subject: the failure to thrive in any world other than the virtual one. The absence of real life – the recurring theme of the film – is shown to be as much about dreams as reality.

To give further licence to the dysfunction, Martin adds dating to his all-round internet fixation. Marcela (Cristina Petersen), a psychologist, turns up. She can speak eight languages, but to rephrase Dorothy Parker, she can’t say anything interesting in any of them. She insists on speaking French. The sheer inanity of the encounter is encompassed in Martin’s remark: “Your French sounds French.”

One of Mariana’s few outlets is swimming. Martin likes swimming too but he can’t stand what comes before or after. Mariana meets Rafa (Rafael Ferro) at the baths, he is a self-confessed “compulsive swimmer” who never sleeps and, as it turns out, is short of a length in the sack department. Such are the shortcomings of displacement activities. The fragility of life, people and relationships is everywhere. Everyone is looking for something.

The film and its treatment might be considered coy but so what? It is well-acted and beautifully filmed by Leandro Martínez. It’s droll in a world that increasingly likes to be slapped round the kisser with a punchline. The overall theme is simple: even deserts bloom and life is irrepressible. Where’s Wally? He’s out there somewhere in the city.

Why does the city turn its back on the river? Because to face it (Rio de la Plata/River of Silver), perhaps, would be a poignant reminder of where this country of immigrants originated and where all the psychiatrists, psychologists and psychotherapists disembarked. It could also be a case of bad planning but Buenos Aires has more shrinks per square yard than Bedlam. It makes even the gloomiest of towns look positively happy-go-lucky by comparison.

Medianeras is showing as part of the 1st Argentine Film Festival of London, which will be taking place between April 19th-22nd at the Ritzy Picturehouse in Brixton. See for more details.

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