“I’m the product of a terrible world that only generates violence.”
Conversations of opposing views have always been difficult. That didn’t start when Donald J. Trump took the Oval Office. In the abstract, that’s the heart of Paulina, the sophomore directorial effort from Argentinian screenwriter Santiago Mitre: learning to understand each other across borders and backgrounds.
A remake of the 1960 Argentina classic La patota (The Gang), Paulina chronicles the story of Paulina (Dolores Fonzi), a Ph.D. candidate with a burgeoning law career who opts for a life teaching along the rural Paraguay-Brazil border. Her dream is to help foster better lives, like the life she was afforded by her successful father as a judge, even if her father sees her plan as little more than a “romantic hippy fantasy.”
Opening with a 15 minute conversation between Paulina and her father (Oscar Martinez) through an unbroken take, Mitre takes simple exposition that sets up the foreground of the film while simultaneously illuminating the background, walking the audience through what Paulina is all about and what’s to stop her later. Because this is done in one take and a conversation between two characters, the thought that it’s in the vein of Linklater will certainly be common, but Mitre crafts his own style building tension with each frame. Paulina isn’t some meditation on life’s curiosities so much as it is an investigation exploration of a life changing event that follows her past the Brazilian border.
What makes Paulina most intriguing is its dichotomous structure. The first half of the film is set up as a classic teacher goes to an impoverished school and uses unconventional teaching methods to turn the class around. On the first day of class, Paulina tells her civics class it’s free to leave at any time if no one wants to learn. That’s where the cliché saved-by-teacher storyline stops. No student goes under her wing and instead she is an outcast that indeed should have listened to her father.
Mitre isn’t done with Paulina as a teacher, though. As Fonzi captures Paulina’s frustration with herself, stalling her relationship and future career, she’s asked to make a more dramatic move. After a late night of drinking with a friend, Paulina rides her friend’s motorbike back to her room to avoid being in an accident because of her sloshed friend’s driving. But through the brush awaits the jealous boyfriend of Paulina’s friend, jumping out to take the sex she’s withheld from him, not realizing it’s Paulina because of the bike she’s riding through the dim light.
Rather than keep the story going forward from the moment she’s dragged off the path, Mitre throws the audience back into the classroom through the point of view of one of the brighter students Paulina encounters, flashing back to her failed introduction to the school. It’s an inventive approach that keeps information away to create a bigger payoff in the end. As the day continues through his eyes, that’s when the reality of the attack sets in. Not only is Paulina wrongly attacked by a grown adult, but he’s joined by a gang of classmates to take revenge on the wrong woman.
The take attack it’s isn’t very revealing but it’s an intentional move, keeping focus on Paulina’s face of dread instead of giving power to the cowardice abusing her. What is more revealing is what Paulina does afterward. Like the SXSW smash-hit, The Light of the Moon, this is not a tale of revenge. Paulina finds out who raped her but doesn’t even want to report them- not because she’s afraid of victim blaming but because she wants to understand them and help, just as she set out to do at the beginning.
Making matters even greater, Paulina also is impregnated and is left with the decision to keep the baby or abort it, causing greater inner conflict with her longtime boyfriend. But Mitre carefully avoids making statements about being pro-life or pro-choice, it operates in a gray area as the conservative and liberal characters both develop contrasting views compared to the opening scene. And like in the opening scene, he proves to be quite the visual auteur creating mounting pressure with long takes to connect the audience with Paulina on a more intimate level than Fonzi’s performance does alone. Mitre doesn’t give any easy answers but clocking in at a brisk hour, it packs punch and emotional heft that not only cares for its protagonist but also seeks to understand the patriarchal system that attacked Paulina.