Three for the Road

Human desires, Argentine landscapes populate “Intimate Stories”

Dreams come in all sizes, and acting on a dream often requires considerable enthusiasm and initiative on the part of the dreamer, especially if the person comes from a small, remote town. Even if the end result of the dream is nothing much by our standards, or Hollywood’s.

Carlos Sorin’s “Intimate Stories” follows three average people from a small town in Patagonia, Argentina’s big-sky region comparable to the American West. The film’s title in Spanish, “Historias Minimas,” suits the film better—these stories are as minimalist as they are intimate.

The residents of Fitz Roy don’t have much to do. Don Justo (Antonio Benedictis) is a retired storeowner who spends his days watching trucks speeding past the store on the highway. Maria (Javiera Bravo), who doesn’t even have electricity, hopes to get onto a game show some day and win a fabulous prize. Roberto (Javier Lombardo), a loquacious traveling salesman, obsesses on decorating a birthday cake for a child of a widow with whom he is smitten, even though he has never met the child. Roberto’s not even sure if the child, Rene, is a boy or a girl.

The town, Fitz Roy, doesn’t offer much. Luckily, the general store has satellite television and that’s how a friend of Maria’s finds out she’s been chosen to appear on “Multicolor Casino,” a very cheesy game show broadcast out of San Julian, the provincial capital 200 miles away. Around the same time, Don Justo is told that his lost dog, Badface, has been spotted in San Julian as well. Naturally, Roberto’s potential romance is located in San Julian.

Inevitably, “Intimate Stories” is a road-trip movie, given the barren landscape all three must cover to get from Fitz Roy to San Julian. But, unlike many other road trips, which are prone to wacky characters along the way and unexpected happenstances, director Sorin takes this film in a gentler direction.

Don Justo is infantilized by his son and daughter-in-law. They would prefer he just sit around all day, and they even cut up his food for him, even though he is perfectly capable of doing it himself. While they sleep, he slips out and starts a trek to San Julian to find his dog. Luckily, the people he meets on the road immediately take to him and treat him kindly. The first is a biologist who insists he take a lift with her. Later, he meets up with Roberto, who talks his ear off, while Justo remains mostly taciturn. Finally, when he reaches San Julian, a factory watchman, Fermin (Anibal Maldonado), looks after him like he’s his own father, but without patronizing him, as do his own children.

Roberto’s story, which takes up as much time as Justo’s, follows him as he tries to sell a plaster that melts body fat, while he goes from town to town with a birthday cake shaped like half a soccer ball. First, he needs to have the child’s name added, which he does in one town, obsessing on the handwriting being “different.” Then, concerned that a soccer ball is too boy-oriented for a child of as yet-undetermined gender, he seeks out another baker, this time in her home, to transform the soccer ball into a more unisex theme—a turtle. Roberto’s smiling countenance and friendly demeanor is almost unbearable at times. He’s a salesman, so you often cannot tell who the real Roberto is.

Maria’s story gets a bit of short shrift, but when we finally see her on the game show, it’s clear that even though the set and the host and everything about “Multicolor Casino” is third-rate, Maria is enjoying a first-class thrill. Like many in the cast of “Intimate Stories,” Ms. Bravo is a non-actor, and, to some degree, her wide-eyed joy of being on TV, to be seen by millions, may simply be a reflection of having been cast in a film. Maria wins a food processor, but a fellow contestant convinces her to trade prizes and some cash, which leaves her questioning her decision afterward. Still, on her trip home, she still projects the euphoria of someone who has taken the trip of a lifetime.

“Intimate Stories” is in many senses a story of turtles winning the race. Set against the vast panorama that is Patagonia, Don Justo’s slow gait is very much that of a tortoise. Roberto, for all of his pitching and bluster and good cheer, is using those qualities to hide his own insecurities, which come to the fore when he thinks he’s lost his chance to impress the widow he likes, and again when he goes to the store she owns and learns that she no longer buys his line of goods. En route home, Maria’s alternate prize, a makeup kit, comes in the form of a turtle as well, with a mirror conveniently—and symbolically—hidden under the top shell.

“Intimate Stories” is nothing more than what it seems—just three slightly overlapping stories of average people with realistic dreams, all of whom are able to move just ever so slightly out of their daily orbits to fulfill them. The rustic setting of Patagonia, with its colorful sunrises and towering mountains, is the perfect location for reinforcing themes of human frailty and the resilience of desire. In an important way, the film is an antidote to what mass-marketed movies have become—high-concept, overly merchandised and populated by characters that don’t exist in real life. If we cannot relate to a man who yearns for a lost canine friend, or a small-town mom who dreams of winning prizes on TV, then maybe a look at “Intimate Stories” is needed, to remind us that small dreams are still quite valuable, and viable, to get along in this life.

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