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The Distinguished Citizen

By Spectator, 2017-03-24

Handsome but taciturn, revered Argentine novelist Daniel Mantovani (Oscar Martínez) has an ambivalent relationship to fame. It has brought him the kind of wealth few authors can ever imagine, yet he’s concerned such commercial success means he’s no longer a challenging writer. All this is succinctly conveyed in a strong opening scene, when Daniel receives the Nobel and voices his fears (almost a rebuke). Five years later, the Barcelona-based author, still much in demand, relies on an assistant named Nuria to politely decline most offers. But then he gets a letter from his provincial hometown of Salas, a seven-hour drive from Buenos Aires. Despite using Salas as the setting for his stories it has been nearly four decades since he has returned. As he says, he’s never left, and he’s never returned. To Nuria’s surprise he accepts the invitation to receive the town’s “Distinguished Citizen” award which even comes with a medal.

His one proviso - no publicity. (So, of course almost as he is seated on the plane the captain announces over the PA system, “We have a Nobel winner on board.”) On arrival in Buenos Aires, he’s picked up in a rickety car and after a breakdown on a “short cut,” he eventually makes it to the backwater town, where the mayor (Manuel Vicente) officiously and effusively welcomes him. From here, the film could go in one of two directions: the late ‘30s Preston Sturges route, where the townspeople only seem simple but possess big hearts that win over the cynical sophisticate. Or it could take more superior tone, with kooky, stereotypical small-town yokels. Distinguished Citizen chooses this latter direction, which perhaps is more in tune with our current society and its proclivity for ironic broad comedy that is absent any subtlety.

Initially the Salas townsfolk are proud to have a celebrity in their midst, especially one who put them on the map but, quickly, simmering resentments surface. Despite Mantovani’s denials, some citizens are certain his fictional characters are based on themselves, and ply him with requests and dinner invitations. It’s arranged that he’ll give a series of lectures and judge a local painting competition. Salas’ school pal Antonio (Dady Brieva) boasts to the returning author that he married Irene (Andrea Frigerio), the girl Daniel left behind. More focus on Irene - one of the few 4-dimensional non-caricatures in town - would have helped to balance the film. For example, there is a moment when she appears to be challenging Daniel’s implications that her life as a small-town teacher is less fulfilling than his own. However, the moment is brief and never developed. Additionally, there is something bordering on the cartoonish about her relationship with crass, loud-mouthed, boorish Antonio.

However, the script rises to the occasion when Daniel makes speeches, whether in front of the Nobel audience, or the small group gathered for the local art prize. At these moments director-writers Mariano Cohn and Gaston Duprat aspire to say something meaningful about art and inspiration. Otherwise, there are amusing situations and a few scraps about Daniel’s parasitic appropriation of hometown for his art. However, the movie would have had more meaning if his main accuser, Florencio Romero (Marcelo D’Andrea), wasn’t a one-dimensional caricature. In fact, apart from the young aspiring writer Ramiro working as the hotel clerk, and nubile Julia (Belén Chavanne), a seductive groupie, most everyone in Salas is depicted as thick-headed rustic bumpkins. The next-to-last scene (not revealed here) is especially misjudged, jarring and out of place, though it’s followed by one of Daniel’s speeches, which aims to right the tone. 

Despite my reservations, thanks to a strong lead played with nuance and gusto by Oscar Martinez and some insightful observations. The Distinguished Citizen is recommended. In Spanish with English subtitles. More on IMDB



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