A journey through the bleak winter landscape of Tierra Del Fuego, Lisandro Alonso’s fourth feature Liverpool is part road movie and part enigmatic character piece. A sailor (Juan Fernández, a non-actor that Alonso met while scouting the area and developing the script) jumps ship when his freighter docks at the frozen port of the icy southern tip of Argentina and heads inland (to see, tells someone, if his mother is still alive). He hits a strip club, bums rides from truck stops and drinks himself into blackouts from a seemingly bottomless bottle. He wakes up one morning in an outhouse, almost dead from exposure, in a scene played for mordant humor, and takes stock of his town (less a village than a leftover community that remained behind after the collapse of a mill town) like a stranger who wandered in, without actually connecting with anyone.
That’s pretty much the narrative movement of the film, but it’s not the story. Explanations are kept to a minimum (you have to wait for the final shot for any explanation of the title, and even then it’s no explanation, merely a suggestion of possibilities) and the motivations are vague, perhaps even to the protagonist (hero seems so inapt for this disconnected figure). The beauty is in the way Alonso observes his characters moving through space and time and measures the beats between the action. This sailor may not connect and Alonso’s removed vantage point may seem disconnected from the events, but he ends the film by leading into a new, more hopeful story family and community. He lets us connect.
Lisandro Alonso keeps company with Lucretia Martel (The Headless Woman) as the most exciting filmmakers to have come out of Argentina. Both are immersive directors with cameras that observe their subjects intently with little exposition and no commentary. Critics talk of cameras as microscopes. These directors are more like naturalists shooting fictional documentaries of subjects in their environments, but where Martel explores the thickets of messy lives at their most tangled and murky, Alonso prefers non-actors, isolated subjects and lonely landscapes. And by isolated, I mean from other people. These are not men (and Alonso’s protagonists are all men) who explain themselves. They are content in their silence as they swig vodka from a bottle.
His shots looks spontaneous yet perfectly, expressively framed. He shoots from the middle distance, defining his characters as much by their existence within their environment as by their actions, and his scenes are leisurely and long, often holding a shot past the point you expect a cut. This is a cinematic ecosystem in a frame, attuned to the landscape and the people within, all of them cast from the area and playing characters close to their own lives. Alonso gets them to strip away “performance” from their performance by focusing on the physical, the familiar motions of workaday routine and rest. They appear simply to be, not acting but simply behaving on camera with no self-consciousness. Like Robert Bresson, he finds something pure in the minimalist performances, and that purity extends to the entire film.
Liverpool is no documentary, but its mix of matter-of-factness and austere beauty creates something that feels organic and authentic as we experience this disconnected character’s journey through space and time. Alonso’s patient direction creates a sense of apprehension and unease to fill in the wordless moments and unspoken conversations. Not much happens and yet everything happens in the way he defies expectations and finds stories in the smallest gestures and exchanges. Liverpool is Alonso’s most assured and richly textured film to date. Kino’s DVD release features no video supplements, but there is an accompanying print interview in the case.