Monday, July 25, 2011

Film review: Central performance redeems shaky 'Anita'

Alejandra Manzo in Anita.

By John Thomason

How’s this for a premise:‭ ‬When a terrorist attack separates a Down syndrome-suffering woman from her caring and infinitely patient mother for the first time in her life,‭ ‬she is forced to confront a harsh outside world,‭ ‬emotionally connecting with the derelicts she encounters and vice versa.‭

Healthy and full of real-world nutrients,‭ ‬Anita is the kind of film that’s more‭ ‬good for you than entertaining‭ – ‬the cinematic equivalent of,‭ ‬to paraphrase President Obama,‭ “‬eating our peas.‭” ‬It’s more precious than‭ ‬Precious,‭ ‬but it charts a similar terrain,‭ ‬rubbing our noses in the misfortunes of a helpless minority and hoping its melodrama can finally Make a Difference.

The setting is Buenos Aires,‭ ‬1994,‭ ‬and the real-life bombing of the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association building‭ (‬AMIA,‭ ‬in Spanish‭)‬,‭ ‬which took the lives of‭ ‬85‭ ‬people and injured hundreds more.‭ ‬Dramatized with immediacy and without frills,‭ ‬the explosion rocks the mentally impaired Anita‭ (‬Alejandra Manzo‭) ‬off the ladder of her mother’s business.‭ ‬Mom,‭ ‬played by the wonderful Oscar nominee Norma Aleandro,‭ ‬is nowhere to be found,‭ ‬having left for a brief visit to the AMIA.‭ ‬Anita is stranded amid the rubble with no comprehension of what just happened.

Non-practicing in their beliefs,‭ ‬the Jewishness of Anita’s family is beside the point‭ – ‬they are collateral damage from a politically motivated Hezbollah militia.‭ ‬Nonetheless,‭ ‬Anita has been a showcase film at a number of Jewish film festivals worldwide,‭ ‬including the Palm Beach Jewish Film Festival last December.‭ ‬But despite the angry and thoughtful quotation that concludes the movie,‭ ‬the political implications of‭ ‬Anita’s inciting incident are unexplored.‭

The only information about the bombing arrives in half-absorbed TV news reports.‭ ‬Argentine co-writer/director Marcos Carnevale,‭ ‬who previously gave us the senior citizen romance‭ ‬Elsa and Fred,‭ ‬instead focuses on the human element,‭ ‬rotating the narrative between Anita’s struggle to survive and her brother Ariel’s‭ (‬Peto Menahem‭) ‬attempts to find Anita and their mother.

Anita’s journey is portrayed,‭ ‬for the most part,‭ ‬with admirable naturalism,‭ ‬as she relies on the charity of a number of reluctant strangers,‭ ‬including alcoholic deadbeat dad Felix‭ (‬Luis Loque‭)‬,‭ ‬a family of squabbling Chinese shop owners and an abrasive nurse with a heart of gold‭ (‬Leonor Manso‭)‬.‭ ‬But Carnevale has a tendency to overplay his hand,‭ ‬layering a pretty but emotionally suffocating score over scenes that have enough power to move us on their own.‭

His attempt to stylize the aftermath of the sobering bombing with sentimental slow-motion comes off as tacky,‭ ‬creating a scene of choreographed carnage in an otherwise straightforward presentation.‭ ‬And a few lines of dialogue come off as phony bits of trailer bait:‭ “‬You fell down the ladder,‭ ‬and my life fell into pieces,‭” ‬observes the bedraggled Felix,‭ ‬in a laughably insightful moment of dimestore Zen.

Yet‭ ‬Anita is worth seeing,‭ ‬if only for the remarkable‭ “‬performance‭” ‬of Manzo as the title character.‭ ‬Carnevale’s decision to cast an actual Down sufferer in the central role gives the film its strongest credibility.‭ ‬The puffy,‭ ‬glassy-eyed actress is a heartbreaking cipher‭ ‬--‭ ‬oblivious,‭ ‬confused and alone in this once-in-a-lifetime part.‭

She brings the kind of conviction that can’t be acted,‭ ‬only conveyed through learned experience.‭ ‬Where a professional actor might use a role like this to angle for an Oscar,‭ ‬Manzo performs without an iota of self-consciousness,‭ ‬becoming the documentary center of Carnevale’s well-intentioned fiction.

This film is certainly a plate full of cold vegetables,‭ ‬but sometimes I really like peas.

ANITA.‭ ‬Directed by Marcos Carnevale.‭ ‬Cast:‭ ‬Alejandra Manzo,‭ ‬Norma Aleandro,‭ ‬Peto Menahem,‭ ‬Luis Loque,‭ ‬Leonor Manso.‭ ‬Distributor:‭ ‬Menemsha.‭ ‬In Spanish with English subtitles.‭ ‬Opens:‭ ‬Friday at Living Room Theaters at FAU.

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