Review: Las Acacias (2011)

This review originally appeared on Capital New York.

Las Acacias is an object lesson in how faces can tell an entire story. Dialogue is incidental. A face can show you a soul. o few directors know how to utilize the eloquent faces of good actors, and director Pablo Giorgelli has enough trust in his story that he allows the faces (two, in total) to do most of the work for him. Las Acacias, then, which tells a simple story of two strangers going on a long journey together, is really about so much more. It’s about loneliness, resignation, survival, endurance, and, suddenly, in a flash of sparks, the possibility of connection, maybe even love. The film packs a surprising punch, and yet, like a lot of great works of art, does not show us all of its cards, not even at the end. But the implications are clear. All you need to do is look at the faces.

Rubén (Germán de Silva) is a trucker who drives the route from Paraguay to Argentina, transporting lumber, splashing water on himself in truck stops, smoking cigarettes, and squinting into his side mirror, propped on a diagonal so he can see, and we can see, the cars zooming up behind his truck and passing him. The placement of the mirror is deliberate. It is apparent that he, the actor, is actually driving the truck, first of all, which grounds the film in a reality-based world. But the mirror serves another purpose. It looks backward. It shows the view of cars passing him by. Over the course of the film we learn that Rubén has a son, whom he met for the first time when the child was four. He has a sister in Buenos Aires with whom he is in intermittent contact. He carries around a picture of his now 10-year-old son standing by a bike he gave him. Quietly, painfully, Rubén’s whole life is looking backwards.

Through a colleague at the trucking company, Rubén agrees to transport a woman named Jacinta (Hebe Duarte) who needs a ride up to Argentina. She shows up at the truck stop carrying a 5-month-old baby, an addition Rubén had not been counting on. It’s a 700-mile drive. All he says is, “Fernando didn’t say anything about a baby.” But the three of them set off on their way. The journey begins in silence. The baby stares at Rubén as he drives, which seems to discomfit him. Jacinta is a quiet and solemn presence, and, occasionally, we see tears in her eyes as she looks out the window. She tells him the baby has no father. She is going to live with her cousin in Buenos Aires. Her cousin might have a job for her.

The pacing is so deliberate, so patient, and there is so little dialogue between the two that we have time to wonder what this tale will be about. Will it be about immigration? Is Jacinta hiding something? Will it be a typical mismatched-duo road movie, full of bickering and finally romance? Incredibly, as Las Acacias unfolds, we realize that no, we haven’t seen this before. Over the course of the mostly-silent journey, character is revealed in tiny beautifully realized moments that speak volumes. Rubén smokes, and Jacinta quietly opens her window in response. Rubén notices this, takes one more puff, and without another word, tosses the cigarette. The baby is hungry and starts screaming. Rubén quietly pulls off to allow Jacinta to warm up the bottle. At a truck stop, Jacinta has to make a phone call, and Rubén offers to hold the baby. He is kind, sweet, and the baby responds to him with huge gurgly smiles. Without a word spoken, the loss of Rubén’s son shimmers in the subtext of every moment he has with the baby. Small snippets of conversation occur between the two characters. But mostly they don’t speak. The nuances occur in the faces, their worlds of separate experience just sitting there between them, as loud as a pistol shot.

In one alarming moment, Jacinta wakes up from having dozed off and sees that Ruben is falling asleep at the wheel. She wakes him up, terrified, begging him to pull off the road. He tells her he has a lot of experience, he’s been driving a truck for 30 years, there is no need to worry. Jacinta insists. Ruben pulls off at the next truck stop and they both sleep for a while.

Ruben is not a cynical grump, an outwardly cranky man annoyed by the intrusion of the woman and the baby. However, it is clear that his life has wizened him, has wizened his response to things. So watch how Ruben hands the baby the top of a thermos to play with, and watch his response to the baby’s delight at her new toy. Rubén is coming back to life during their long drive, and Germán de Silva is nothing short of extraordinary in how he suggests this without dialogue. They encounter people along the way, and Jacinta meets a fellow Paraguayan at a roadside stand, and Rubén watches their chattering conversation with something that might be … jealousy? Could it be?

By the time they reach Buenos Aires, the energy between the two is relaxed. They have gotten used to each other. He has made concessions to her, and she has made concessions to him. I realized I was dreading their parting, and yet, in the moment, I could hardly say why. There was no burgeoning romance, no confrontation.

The opening scene of Las Acacias shows the felling of beautiful towering trees in a forest, the trees that eventually will be transported by Rubén’s truck to Buenos Aires. The “acacias” of the title refers to a spiky tree, but, like the rear view mirror showing cars passing the truck by, it also operates as a metaphor. Rubén has spikes, Jacinta has spikes, life gives us all spikes. That’s how life works. The baby doesn’t have spikes yet. She experiences life openly, honestly. It seems we can’t live without our spikes after a certain point. Life is unimaginable without proper protection, since so often we get a raw deal. Rubén’s truck transports giant dead trees, but inside that truck, life is starting to sprout again.

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