Peruvian directors Daniel and Diego Vidal's debut feature "October" was a minor hit on the festival circuit in 2011 that was noteworthy for its unique application of deadpan comedy to the unlikely backdrop of lower class world of loan sharks and prostitutes. The sibling filmmakers' followup similarly explores a dreary world in unorthodox fashion, in this case justifying lengthy pauses for reasons beyond their stylistic appeal: The movie revolves around a character who loses the ability to speak. As a result, its relatively thin story is almost exclusively carried by the expressions on one man's face.
That would be Constantino Zegarra (Fernando Bacillio), a no-nonsense magistrate seen in the first scene dolling out justice without an iota of sympathy for lawbreakers. Within minutes, however, he receives a comeuppance for playing by the rules in a country so used to lawbreakers, when a bullet crashes through the window of his car and hits him in the neck. In a swift illustration of the Vidal brothers' alluring approach to visual storytelling, the shooting takes place in a lengthy shot punctuated by the way the camera just sits there for several seconds after Constantino goes down -- followed by an immediate cut to the man bandaged up in a hospital bed writing notes to his colleagues about his suspicions behind those responsible for his condition. The directors apply a storybook-level simplicity to the narrative even as it delves into a grim scenario in which Constantino has wound up the victim of his moral convictions.
With such a compelling premise in place, "The Mute" eventually suffers from many of the same issues of insufficient plot ingredients that dogged "October." While Constantino launches on a quest to track down the criminal he believes to have arranged the shooting even as police insist he was hit by a stray bullet, his mission largely results in a series of dead ends punctuated by interstitial moments surrounding Constantino's troubled home life with his worrisome wife and daughter. The mundanity of Constantino's life even after his debilitating accident conveys a clever ironic contrast, but it's never quite enough to sustain the basic plot, which never generates much intrigue. Though it eventually arrives at a climax that temporarily elevates the story, it's hardly enough of a shock to justify the wait.
Yet, like "October," the new movie relates a distinct atmosphere in which darker elements clash in compelling fashion, leading to a strangely uplifting perspective on the perseverance when faced with a series of lost causes. Less comically inspired or inventive than "October," Constantino's world nevertheless showcases his ambition by situating in the larger context of a cold world unsympathetic to his convictions. As a metaphor for responsible citizens silenced by indifferent majority, his vocal restrictions are a touch on-the-nose, but "The Mute" efficiently roots Constantino's experience in loud, talky urban surroundings to reflect his entrapment. Bacillio's performance is naturally the key aspect that makes this tactic work: His eyes imply an internal monologue about his desire for vengeance. While that desire is never sufficiently realized, the lack of satisfaction resembles Constantino's frustrations. "The Mute" traps viewers in its protagonist's world so that his wordless experience turns into a valiant fight against the enemies of self-expression.
Criticwire grade: B
HOW WILL IT PLAY? An under-the-radar festival entry that may end up at the Toronto International Film Festival in the fall, "The Mute" is unlikely to receive much North American exposure in commercial release, though it seems well-positioned to receive plenty of attention on the Latin American film festival circuit.