Lives in Miniature

The stars must have been aligned last week when I wrote about the literary conference in Ushuaia; that evening I happened across Carlos Sorín’s “Historias mínimas” (2002, translated as “Intimate Stories”), a beautiful, meditative work that also takes place in the southern reaches of Argentina. In the work, Patagonia serves as more than an emblem of the exotic perfection of nature at the ends of the earth; it is a space in which lives are shaped and run their course.

Here’s a description of the film from Entertainment Weekly:

In vignettes of coincidence and cooperation played out between Fitz Roy and the distant port of San Julián, the imposing physical presence of blacktop extends in an endless ribbon over the vast, extraordinary steppes of Southern Patagonia. […] An old man with a guilty conscience hitches rides in search of his dog; a young provincial woman and her baby journey by bus to claim a prize on a TV game show; a traveling salesman frets about the perfect gift to impress a woman he fancies. Strangers meet, then move on. Paths cross, then unravel. Only the highway itself remains constant in Sorin’s sweet, shaggy travelogue.

Mikhail Bakhtin, in his Dialogic Imagination, presents the road as a unique intersection of space and time, in which contact is transitory and the constraints of day to day life are somehow suspended. Sorín complicates this idea beautifully by folding the model back in on itself. The lives that intersect along the road to San Julian were already intertwined, back in the characters’ home town of Fitz Roy. Rather than crossing in opposite directions, as Bakhtin would have it, these lives run parallel to one another and are only occasionally pulled together by circumstance.

In this way, despite the perpetual motion of the film’s protagonists, they ultimately end up where they started. Of all the witty and charming posters that were made for the film (I also loved this one, which features Roberto’s infamous cake), I thought the one above really captured the idea that, for all three of these characters, the line between home and the road blurs as they set out on their travels with far more baggage than they realize. In this way, the form that Roberto finally settles on for his cake takes on an extra layer of meaning: all of them, each in his or her own way, carry their worlds on their backs.

One brief note on the English subtitles: they can be a bit literal at times – occasionally to the point of missing the mark. It’s not a catastrophic shortcoming, but while you’re watching be aware that the dialogue in Spanish flows naturally, as opposed to the often stilted sound of the English. Additionally, the name of Don Justo’s dog, Mala Cara, loses something important in its tranliteration as “Bad Face.” In Spanish, the phrase ‘tener mala cara’ means to look sickly or unwell. I’ve also heard it used in reference to someone who is despondent. Either way, the name has an emotional valence that resonates with Don Justo’s reason for searching the animal out, which is not conveyed in the subtitles. Now you know.

“Historias mínimas” has won dozens of awards on the international festival circuit, and is available on DVD and Netflix streaming.

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