Though it runs a mere 78 minutes, The Desert Bride is strikingly languorous and open-ended, its graceful silences and unhurried rhythms speaking to the intriguing identity crisis of its protagonist. Cecilia Atan and Valeria Pivato’s picture unfolds largely as an aesthetic experience — one in which the way the camera explores a space, or frames a face, is more important than words or actions in conveying the story’s central drama. That makes for an occasionally challenging but ultimately rewarding experience.
The film follows Teresa (Paulina Garcia), a middle-aged woman who has spent most of her life as a live-in maid for an urbane, well-to-do Buenos Aires family. That family, however, is now selling its house, and Teresa, whose sense of self has been wrapped up in her work for all these years, is being politely but swiftly dismissed. Atan and Pivato represent the house as a series of hard angles and antiseptic rooms. Was it always this blank, or has it merely been emptied of character and meaning now that they’re leaving? Still, there are vestiges here of the life that Teresa made possible, including the wall on which she charted the growing height of the family’s son, now a grown man. What little mark she has made in this world, it seems, was in service of others.
We see images of Teresa’s former life in brief glimpses and flashbacks. Most of the story takes place in the desert, as Teresa, on her way to a new job in the distant town of San Juan, has become stranded. When her bus makes a rest stop, she wanders into the van of an eccentric traveling salesman named El Gringo (Claudio Rissi) and accidentally leaves her bag behind. El Gringo drives off with it, and Teresa embarks on a journey to find him and retrieve her belongings. El Gringo is an oddball, and it’s initially hard to figure out what to make of him, but he does also seem more attentive to this woman — this momentary acquaintance in the middle of nowhere — than the people to whom she dedicated so much of her life ever were.
Atan and Pivato turn this simple tale into a lovely existential journey, one with a modesty of scale that betrays the profound nature of the ideas at play. The desert is spellbinding: A viewer can get lost in its vast blankness and its delicate silences, where every soft, sandy footstep can seemingly be heard from miles away. These aren’t so much the sensuous dunes of Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Sheltering Sky (a film with which The Desert Bride shares some thematic similarities) as they are the airy, empty spaces where Teresa can finally confront who she is and who she wants to be.
The story works largely on the level of metaphor, but it’s never overbearing or suffocating; there’s life here. A lot of credit should go to the actors, particularly the lead. As the film moves along, Garcia’s face seems to change dramatically. The Chilean actress has already demonstrated her tremendous range in films like Sebastian Lelio’s Gloria and Ira Sachs’s Little Men. She hasn’t been given a lot of dialogue or incident to work with here, but no matter: She seems able to transform herself on an almost molecular level, as Teresa’s tension gradually dissipates and her expression softens. I swear I thought I was watching a different person by the end of the film. And in some senses, I was: The whole movie is about the process whereby this woman finds her own identity and claims her humanity.