VOD Review: La Soledad.
This prize winning drama from Venezuela richly captures the uncertainty of its setting but lacks a resolution worthy of its set up.
La Soledad is a strange and beautiful film that is hard to define. It is based on real events, and stars the actual people involved. It traces a haunting narrative about one family’s struggle to stay in their home as Venezuela is mired in economic and social chaos. The film is set in the dilapidated former villa of the director’s grandparents and features his childhood friend, Jose, who is struggling to keep his family from homelessness. Director Jorge Thielen Armand depicts Jose’s story like a Victorian ghost story. Jose goes in search of a cursed treasure hidden in the walls of the villa, and the drama has the requisite eerie events and sinister portents. Unfortunately, the trappings of a latent horror story are just a dramatic facade to cover what is largely a documentary and neither genre is served by the melding of the two.
La Soledad (2016)
Jose is a young father who lives with his wife, daughter, and grandmother in the crumbling ruins of a once luxurious villa called La Soledad. Grandmother Rosina used to work for the family who owned the house and has lived on the premise since it was essentially abandoned decades ago. As Jose struggles to find food and medicine for his family during the calamitous economic struggles of current day Venezuela, he learns that the house is slated for demolition. Desperate, he clings to any possible hope, including a whispered rumor that former owners have hidden a cursed treasure somewhere on the property.
Rich in Atmosphere.
Armand creates a film that gorgeously evokes its setting. The struggles of present day Venezuela are richly presented, as are the phantoms of lost prosperity that haunt its residents. Armand has a documentarian’s eye for contrast – light against dark, old against new, beauty against tragedy. The camera guides your eye to where it needs to be, telling the story of its protagonists with hardly a word. Eschewing the trappings of a proper documentary grants an immediacy to the proceedings. It also highlights a lack of narrative thrust that ultimately robs the film of much of its enjoyment.
The Terror of Poverty.
One of the things that grabbed me about La Soledad (besides a trailer that shows the beauty of this film’s cinematography) was the intriguing premise. The first few lines of the official description talk about the nature of Venezuela’s trouble and Jose’s situation, and it’s not an uncommon dramatic set up for an independent film. Then the last line of the description mentions the gold and the ghost story. It was this final line, added in almost an offhanded manner, that captured my attention.
In one sense, Armand creates a ghost story unlike any I’ve seen. The spectre of poverty and desperation is the creature that stalks Jose and his family, and it is never far from them. Natural sounds, the contrast of light and dark, and the juxtaposition of the villa’s beautiful architecture with its crumbling state all contribute to a feeling of dread and dereliction, much like Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. There are haunting images and moments of tension where you feel like it could turn into a true horror movie at any moment. Despite having an actual ghost, the narrative never takes that final step.
La Soledad is filled with a slow building tension that never resolves. Unlike the final, fateful emergence of the ghost in James’ story, the constant building of dread is never is given a resolution. The cursed gold story shows up late and leads to nothing within the narrative. It’s a bogeyman to put a concrete focus on an amorphous feeling of unease. While you are waiting for it to arrive, it is effective. When you realize that it will never amount to anything, it leaves you drained. As the narrative reaches what should be its climax, Jose and his family go to the beach. I remarked that given how this movie frustrates expectations, it’ll probably end any second. It did.
As deeply frustrated as I was by the ending, I did appreciate La Soledad on many levels. The cinematography is excellent and the sound work is amazing. You are transported into the setting of the film and immersed in it. I did not realize that the cast was playing themselves and they all do a solid job, especially Jose Delores Lopez. I don’t know if Jorge Thielen Armand ever wants to direct a horror movie, but he has the chops. He uses tension and atmosphere like a young Guillermo Del Toro. After the initial bitter disappointment of the unresolved narrative, I was able to reflect on how well Armand was able to communicate the lived-in experience of Venezuela’s current, terrible situation. I don’t know if the film would have been better served as a documentary or as a purely fictional drama. Each contributes to the overall experience, adding and subtracting from it. La Soledad is a complicated film, and while I wouldn’t call it a rewarding experience, it is utterly unique and therefore valuable.