Home > Argentina, Laurel Corona, Movies, Russia > San Diego Jewish Film Festival preview: La Camara Oscura

San Diego Jewish Film Festival preview: La Camara Oscura

January 20, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

Mama never seemed to miss the finer things of life
If she did she never did say so to daddy
She never wanted to be more than a mother and a wife
If she did she never did say so to daddy

The only thing that seemed to be important to her life
Was to make our house a home and make us happy
Mama never wanted any more than what she had
If she did she never did say so to daddy.

–EmmyLou Harris

By Laurel Corona 

SAN DIEGO — Watching La Camara Oscura (2008), I found the lyrics of one of Emmylou Harris’ best-known songs running continually through my mind.  Though it’s quite easy to see where this film is going (in fact it begins at the end, with a family’s dinner table left still a mess the morning after), Argentine director Maria Victoria Menis offers an excruciatingly poignant tale of a woman who comes to view her own existence as important even though no one else does.

Gertrudis (Mirta Bogdasarian) is so unwanted as a baby that her parents can’t bother to think of a name for her.  She is born around the turn of the twentieth century on the gangplank of the ship bringing her Jewish mother and father and their young family to Buenos Aires from Russia’s pogrom-ridden Pale, and when the immigration officer suggests they use the name of his girlfriend, the couple goes along. In a series of quick vignettes, we see that Gertrudis never had a chance to develop a healthy sense of herself.  Her mother treats her as ugly and irrelevant, and she is so severely mocked at school that she wants to disappear altogether. Even at her wedding, she is ignored so utterly that she cleans up alone while the party goes on without her.

The rest of the film is set twenty years from that point, detailing Gertrudis’ life as a wife and mother on the family farm owned by her husband Leon Kohen (Fernando Armani). No one notices the home-sewn clothes she keeps ironed and mended; the food she preserves; the freshly laundered sheets on the beds, the flowers she brings in from her garden. In fact, most of the time she does not even sit at the dinner table. Instead, she waits in the kitchen listening to the conversation while the family eats the beautiful meals she has prepared.

When her husband engages a photographer (Patrick dell’Isola) to take pictures of his family, the family dynamic continues unchanged at first, but the presence of a stranger who brings stories of the outside world into the house and, more importantly, takes an interest in her, causes subtle changes in how Gertrudis sees herself and her life.

Subtle is the operative word here, for the real strength of this film is Bogdasarian’s portrayal of Gertrudis. She almost never speaks. We know her through the expressions on her face, through her watchful eyes, through the way she looks away or touches her hand to her throat.  This is a woman with a rich imagination and untapped sensuality, a woman far more beautiful than she realizes.

La Camara Oscura makes imaginative use of vintage photographic techniques and animation to give more insight into the character of Gertrudis and the photographer. The net result is a film that offers no real surprises but leaves an ache in the throat from beginning to end, and a strong message about the powerful hidden yearnings of people we barely notice.

The film’s dialogue is in Spanish and Yiddish, with English subtitles.  Take your Valentine to this one and have a good talk afterwards.

UltraStar Mission Valley. Sunday, Feb 14. 7:30 PM
Corona is a San Diego-based freelance writer and an award-winning author

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