Nothing in the world is more powerful than an idea whose time has come, wrote Victor Hugo more than a hundred years ago. And so it is with the lead character in the quietly amazing Argentinian film NATURAL SCIENCES (CIENCIAS NATURALES).
Lila, a teenager in a boarding school at a rural mountain town has suddenly reached a juncture in life where her paramount need is to find her biological father. Her mother who works a bare, hard life on the farmland will not give her any information regarding the man. Freezing winter is fast approaching but Lila is undeterred in her pursuit. She has tried to run away from school in search of her father, once on a horse through the snow-covered hillsides, and once in a car she doesn’t know how to drive. The school Principal is perplexed, then angered by this sudden, irrational desire on the part of someone who had until then been a quiet, unremarkable student. Reasoning or discipline prove ineffective. Lila is consumed by her mission and is unstoppable. A more sympathetic faculty member, who teaches Natural Sciences at school, also tries to deter Lila. But recognizing that Lila will not relent and likely concerned for her safety, she joins Lila in her quixotic quest. With nary a clue about the man they are looking for, the two hit the road.
This should sound like the sort of sappy, road-trip movie that Hollywood likes to dole out with some regularity. If you are more generous, this may seem to you like one of those well-meaning, heartfelt indie films about strangers connecting through unusual circumstances. But NATURAL SCIENCES transcends those categories altogether.
This is an accomplished film from first-time director, Matias Lucchesi, who retains a strong, confident hold over this material at all times. Pick a scene from this film, pick any scene, and notice the rigor with which it has been constructed, how it completely bypasses familiar traps, or cliché. You can notice this on a minute by minute basis, in the precise writing, the affectless acting and direction that does not draw attention to itself. In its hard-won naturalness and rigor around all of filmmaking components, NATURAL SCIENCES draws easy comparison to the austere, stark and no less devastating Chilean movie from last year, THURSDAY TILL SUNDAY (DE JUEVES A DOMINGO).
The actor who plays Lila (Paula Galinelli Hertzog) necessarily carries the film on her young shoulders. And effortlessly brings it to a place of believability, capturing the sullen, untalkative affect of the teenager whose world is dominated by a singular myopic obsession. She may seem possessed by the fever of an irrational pursuit, and may not have the means to articulate it fully, but she is also inherently a good person, a person trying to discover herself as a grown human being and unable to do so without locating her roots first. And how about Paola Barrientos who plays the teacher who accompanies Liza on her search; one of the hardest things for an actor to do on screen is to transmit empathy, and Barrientos does it with a rare authenticity that never once tilts into cheap sentimentality. What great fortune for this director to have been able to recruit these two actors for his first film.
This is a film of quiet wonder. It tells a story that may initially seem familiar, but in how it goes about telling it, the film is note-perfect . I cannot wait to see the next project from this filmmaker.
NATURAL SCIENCES is the best film I saw at the 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival. And by a wide margin.
[Natural Sciences is an Argentinian film currently making the festival rounds and was screened at the 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival. It is awaiting distribution in the U.S. You can watch the trailer here].