CIFF 2010: Asleep in the Sun (Dormir al Sol, 2010)

Director/Screenwriter: Alejandro Chomski

2010 Chicago International Film Festival

By Marilyn Ferdinand

I really like when films creep up on me—tell me I’m going one way and then take a sharp detour to an unexpected destination. Asleep in the Sun is a charming, unnerving film whose picture-postcard, 1950s setting lulls viewers into a sweet dream of nostalgia, only to turn a character’s moderate neurosis into a nightmare for all those in her circle.

Lucio (Luis Machín) is a watchmaker who works out of the boyhood home he inherited from his parents when they died in an accident. He lives with his adored, but troubled wife Diana (Esther Goris), who is fixated on dogs and attached to Prof. Standle (Enrique Piñeyro), who runs a dog clinic. Diana visits his clinic frequently to play with the dogs, and hopes one day to get herself a bitch puppy—females make the best watchdogs, says Standle. One day, the professor comes to Lucio and observes that it is not normal for a person to be so indecisive about choosing a dog. Intuiting that Diana has mental problems, he suggests a “phrenopathic” clinic that will cure her in a matter of mere days, not years of expensive psychoanalysis. Lucio, who has endured separation from Diana before while she pursued cures at other mental hospitals, resists. Eventually, however, he agrees to let Diana try to get well at the clinic. “We must trust the professor,” Diana says.

Bad idea. Lucio is denied access to his wife, something that never happened at the other hospitals. When Diana is released after what the imperious head of the clinic, Dr. Samaniego (Carlos Belloso), says is a complete cure, she doesn’t seem the same. She suddenly likes to take walks and perform fellatio, and she doesn’t recognize her nephews or make her corn pie using her usual recipe. Lucio’s housekeeper, Cerefina (Vilma Ferrán), finds a photo of a woman among Diana’s belongings and thinks there is some connection. When Lucio confronts Dr. Samaniego about the disturbing alteration in his wife’s personality, he puts everyone in his household in danger.

As the movie unfolds, it’s not hard to guess what has happened to Diana, but the journey is so enjoyable and the dawning realization that we’re in a science-fiction horror movie is so surprising that I fell for this movie hard. Visually, it is a complete treat—the vintage cars with windshields that open, the kitschy wallpaper inside Diana and Lucio’s home so bizarre I kept trying to decide what it depicted (I settled on a golfer), the decorative prints on the walls so in keeping with the 50s aesthetic of artificial nature. I loved the cash-register-sized phone in Dr. Samaniego’s office, looking the world like a hotline to hell, and the full-length tile walls in places other than the bathroom, their turquoise glaze giving the room inhabitants a queasy look.

Chomski’s inventive opening—a rapid-moving steadicam at ground level with a slightly hazy focus depicting a dog’s point of view—had me at hello. A dreamy interlude of a dog laying on a raft and drifting on water under a warm sun intrudes at key moments; only slowly do we come to understand what this image signifies and put the pieces of the puzzle together.

Chomski attended the screening, only the second of this film anywhere in the world. He told of the genesis of the film, which arose from his friendship with Argentine writer Adolfo Bioy Casares and his admiration for his novel Asleep in the Sun. The pair talked about adapting the book for the cinema, and when Casares died, Chomski decided to push on. He retained the spirit of the book, though many plot points had to be added—for example, an explanation of what had happened to Diana was devised based on quack-science research Chomski conducted—to render the story coherent. And he decided to film it as a period piece, as originally written, instead of updating it to the present because he felt the story was too delicate to stand up to today’s information-soaked scrutiny. This was, indeed, a great choice.

The actors appearing in the film, great in their quietly comic sincerity, with faces straight out of a Coen brothers film, are well known in Argentina. Chomski said he is very curious to see whether familiarity with these actors will affect how Argentinians will receive the film, and he was gratified to see how we reacted without this baggage to mitigate our perceptions of what was on the screen.

Chomski added a very slight political agenda to the film by showing that people often are powerless to stop bad things from happening in their countries and communities. He used the examples of Americans who opposed the invasion of Iraq and Argentinians who did not want a military dictatorship who had these things foisted upon them with no recourse. Of course, history catches up with every event. I wonder how it will catch up with Lucio and Diana. I heartily recommend that festival goers check out this engaging, sly film.

Asleep in the Sun screens Thursday, October 14, 9:15 p.m., and Monday October 18, 1:30 p.m. The director will be present to take questions. All screenings take place at the AMC River East 21 Theatres, 322 E. Illinois St.

Previous CIFF coverage

Tuesday, After Christmas: A beautifully photographed story of adultery poses a potent metaphor for Romania in its new prosperity. (Romania)

On Tour: A French TV producer returns from “exile” in America with a troupe of burlesque dancers to try to get back on top in this amiable, improvisational comedy. (France)

Circus Kids: The St. Louis Arches youth circus travels to Israel to join forces with the Galilee Circus to help bridge the gap between Arabs and Jews in this optimistic documentary. (Israel/USA)

The Matchmaker: Magical coming-of-age drama in which a teenage boy learns a message of love and tolerance from a Holocaust survivor. (Israel)

Ten Winters: Love will find a way, but it takes its time in this wise, realistic story of a young man and woman whose mutual attraction and friendship take some interesting turns over 10 years. (Italy)

Certified Copy: Elliptical tale of seduction by renowned director Abbas Kiarostami in which two strangers pretend to be a married couple in crisis. (Iran/Italy/France)

The Princess of Montpensier: The French Catholic persecution of Protestants forms the backdrop for this period drama about the travails suffered by a beautiful noblewoman desired by four men. (France/Germany)

Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff: Legendary British cinematographer Jack Cardiff and others who knew him discuss his career, including such highlights as The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus. (UK)

Waste Land: A moving examination of the positive transformation of workers in Brazil’s largest landfill when artist Vik Muniz comes to photograph them. (Brazil/USA)

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives: This 2010 Palme d’Or winner chronicles the final days of Boonmee using magic realism and experimental techniques to explore universal myths and symbols. (Thailand)

The Last Report on Anna: A dreamy, romantic film centering on Anna Kéthly, real-life Hungarian minister in exile, and a spy’s attempt to silence her by seducing her into returning to their communist-controlled country. (Hungary)

  • donald ranvaud spoke:
    14th/10/2010 to 8:11 pm

    Wow this site is a real find…….! Its so rare to see some intelligent and considered REAL criticism these days that your site restores faith and confidence in the effort of making them…..THANK YOU and I will be become a regular

  • Marilyn spoke:
    14th/10/2010 to 11:52 pm

    Donald – You have no idea how welcome and timely your gracious compliment is – I was feeling like chucking it all in today. Thank you, too, for making me aware through the link in your name of the projects with which you are associated. We don’t get enough films from Latin America in Chicago, and I do my best to see the best of them when they come around. Just saw Southern District from Bolivia tonight, with the stunning visuals I’ve come to expect from Latin America cinema. Happy to have a new fan.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    15th/10/2010 to 8:23 am

    “I really like when films creep up on me—tell me I’m going one way and then take a sharp detour to an unexpected destination. Asleep in the Sun is a charming, unnerving film whose picture-postcard, 1950s setting lulls viewers into a sweet dream of nostalgia, only to turn a character’s moderate neurosis into a nightmare for all those in her circle.”

    I couldn’t agree more Marilyn, and this latest report continues this mazing and revelatory CIFF schedule.. You have never been one to issue easy grades for anything, so this positive run is rare and more than heartening. I know I have a line-up to salivate for, as these features earn rlease dates.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    15th/10/2010 to 9:24 am

    Sam – I’ve certainly been thrilled to see so many engaging films skillfully made, and it was a special treat to meet the director of this film, who was as smart and entertaining as his film. He said that he was playing a little gag on Argentinians as well, where everyone has a shrink! I certainly hope it gets a release. It deserves it.

  • Greg Ferrara spoke:
    15th/10/2010 to 10:04 am

    Chucking it all in? Are you crazy?! Everything Donald said is true, and those of us who know you think it every time we read you.

    So, it looks like you’re doing an October themed film after all, even if only by chance. I certainly hope this shows up at the AFI soon. This review has definitely wheted my appetite.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    15th/10/2010 to 10:16 am

    Greg – One can suffer fools gladly only for so long, and I got an additional slap in the face at the box office when I saw that volunteers were being instructed not to give free tickets to people with my color of press pass, even when the screening is not sold out or a special presentation. This goes against all previous practice. I got my ticket, but I was plenty pissed off.

    Shane and I are going to a “midnight” movie of horror shorts tomorrow night for our October chills. If they are good, I’ll surely write them up.

  • Alejandro Chomski spoke:
    25th/10/2010 to 4:12 pm

    Dear Marylin,
    Thanks so much for all of your support, you should write to IMDB as somebody from Chicago wrote something really mean about the film…they have pusblished his review and not yours, which is the one positive and optimistic about the making of cinema…

  • Marilyn spoke:
    25th/10/2010 to 4:43 pm

    Alejandro – I will reply to that commenter. My review is linked in the External links/Critics review, so be assured people can get another opinion. And I do get a lot of readers from IMDb.

    If it were in my power, I’d be sure your film was booked all over the place. I wish you tremendous luck with this fine work of yours, and it is a distinct honor to have you visit my humble blog and even more, to visit my city to share your experiences with me and the rest of the audience.

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