Review: El ciudadano ilustre (2016)


El ciudadano ilustre (2016)

Directed by: Gastón Duprat, Mariano Cohn | 112 minutes | comedy, drama | Actors: Oscar Martínez, Dady Brieva, Andrea Frigerio, Nora Navas, Manuel Vicente, Marcelo D’Andrea, Belén Chavanne, Gustavo Garzón, Julián Larquier Tellarini, Emma Rivera, Nicolás de Tracy, Daniel Kargieman, Alexis López Costa, Leonardo Murija, Pedro Roth, Pilar Dutari, Ariel Fiorenza

‘El ciudadano ilustre’ (‘The Distinguished Citizen’) opens with a telltale scene in which Argentine writer Daniel Montovani receives the Nobel Prize for Literature from the Nobel Committee and the Swedish royal family. Rather than gratefully accept the award, Montovani delivers a lengthy speech about the artist’s demise at such a large and institutionalized recognition. He even speaks of a ‘fatal’ recognition, by turning the artist into an institution and, in passing, offends the monarchy and all the royal institutions. The tone is set for a film full of black humor that also poses important questions about art, fame, dealing with the past and urban arrogance versus village petty bourgeoisie.

More than thirty years ago, Montovani left his native village of Salas, north of Buenos Aires, never to return. He has been living in a spacious villa in Barcelona for years now. The film makes a time jump of five years, during which Montovani’s writing career indeed seems to have come to a standstill after the ‘fatal recognition’. He systematically refuses to respond to the countless invitations sent to him from all over the world. Until one crosses his path from his native village Salas. The mayor invites him because the village wants to grant him an honorary citizenship. Daniel first declines the invitation, but then changes his mind and decides to accept the invitation. Maybe he just needs an emotional boost like this to rekindle his inspiration? Finally, all these years in his absence, he made grateful use of the many stories and characters that abounded in his childhood and birthplace. He is insufficiently aware that the people in Salas are also made of flesh and blood and struggle with pride, jealousy and (bygone) dreams to escape from the village.

At first glance, ‘El ciudadano ilustre’ is a light-hearted comedy, which at times moves towards farce. Black humor and self-mockery, which the regular directing duo Mariano Cohn and Gastón Duprat (‘El hombre de al lado’) are often good at, punctuate the story: the Argentine trauma about the fact that no Argentine writer has ever won the Nobel Prize for Literature. won, is already ridiculed with the premise of the story. Cohn and Duprat hold up a mirror to their homeland, especially its countryside, in a witty yet compelling way. The village culture is not ridiculed without compassion, but it is certainly doubted. And besides being Argentinean, this culture, with its favoritism and bruised egos, is also universal for (small) communities, where community pride often goes hand in hand with envy of ‘those who have left’.

The fact that the (digitally shot) film is not a great masterpiece visually is more than compensated for by these and other interesting questions raised by the directors. Contradictions such as Argentina versus Europe, city versus countryside and popular versus elitist will be recognizable to many viewers. But also with issues of art and artistry, the directors are planting various interesting seeds – how far does artistic freedom and autonomy of the artist extend? And what responsibilities does that come with? Does an artist owe his audience or his sources of inspiration? Is art embraced by the establishment still valuable? Can an artist ever make concessions in order to keep the peace? By having Daniel (played very strongly by Oscar Martínez, who we know from the Argentine hit ‘Relatos salvajes’ or ‘Wild Tales’) himself, in a series of uncomfortable and at times hilarious encounters and situations, the directors force the audience to think about it. At least when he’s recovered from laughing.

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