Natalia Almada’s first feature film after a decade plus of non-fiction is encouraging in many ways, even as it shows a great need for discipline and soul-searching. The RISD grad has one hell of an eye for composition, the kind that will always render architecture and human error as apocalyptically poetic. What she needs more of is trust. She loves her heavy-handed visual metaphors and the film ostensibly turns on the loss of a pet, which should be proscribed in all films, especially debuts. But there’s something to her poaching and picking that yields a kind of unexpected poignancy. Sure, every third image is right out of the austere arthouse coffee table book, but when she stops being short with her characters and audience and decides to be sympathetic, it works shockingly well.
Adriana Barraza (Oscar-nominated for Babel, but don’t let that fool you, she’s very good) is a desk clerk named Dona Flor. Dona enjoys hidden stores of pleasure by telling people what they don’t want to hear. Her poker face masks the obvious glee she takes in telling her put-upon temporary charges that they haven’t filled out a form correctly, that this line doesn’t match that line, that some piece of meaningless information isn’t correctly accounted for. Her joy comes out in small ways, as when she luxuriates in putting on lipstick in the ladies room following a stressful encounter with one of the poor souls who have the misfortune to sit on the other side of her desk. The only other thing she seems to derive any pleasure from in life is drowning out the world (represented by news broadcasts describing abjectly horrific accidents befalling women and children on the streets outside) with her pet cat. Naturally the cat only makes it to Act 2 and Dona’s piece of mind goes with it. Things get awfully bleak after that.
Almada’s got style and patience, enough of both to make one look like the other. The camera never leaves the tripod, so the duration of every shot tells the story as much as the dimensions of the frame. How long will we watch Dona Flor torture a family or stand in front of the public pool where she spends the odd afternoon? Will something break inside the frame, or in the eyes of someone inside of it? The tension present in each shot is gripping enough, but the tension most interesting is between Almada and her influences, because her thematic payoffs don’t amount to much when you figure out where she’s going. For example: as soon as the public pool motif is introduced it’s a matter of minutes before she introduces Dona’s peers, all of them packed into their perkily colored bathing suits. This is all right out of Austrian hellraiser Ulrich Seidl, another documentarian who dabbles in fiction. The well-to-do bourgeoisie stuffed into swimwear is Seidl shorthand for women having nowhere to put their contempt and privilege. Almada does with it what you’d expect, humiliating and humanizing Dona when dramatically convenient. There’s a blind melodica player Dona encounters on her commute right of Buñuel’s Mexican period and the film shifts into Antonioni/Hiroshi Teshigahara mode at around Act 3, when Dona’s existential reckoning is represented in a noisy symphony of buildings, lights, cars and trains. It’s predictable coming from a design school grad, but it’s also arthouse 101, so the orgy of neon makes so much sense it’s almost comforting. She even has one of Dona’s victims wearing a subway map t-shirt. She’s *lost*, you see? And finally there’s the Hannah Arendt connection, right there in Everything Else‘s press notes explaining the death grip of bureaucracy. Dona herself is presented as the inverse of Barbara Sukowa’s portrayal of Arendt in Margarethe von Trotta’s 2012 film about the great writer, right down to her sweaters. So if it’s all this predictable then why watch the film at all, right?
It’s tough to say exactly what to call the effect Almada achieves in Everything Else because it slips between the rigor of the seventeen traditions she co-opts for safety’s sake. It’s the stuff that escapes the too-perfect focus of every shot. It’s when Dona’s hands and feet are placed before water, alive with action and youth and possibility while she looks like taxidermy thanks to a build-up of life’s little misfortunes. It’s in those shots of the child she never had swimming in a public pool like Spencer Elden on the cover of Nevermind. It’s in the bottomless eyes of the fire-eating bandit assailing Mexican motorists who spares Dona after a too-predictable act of charity. It’s that life seeps into these embalmed, “objective” rectangles, and it feels like voodoo visibly altering the miserabilist tradition Dona lives by and Almada looks to worship. Don’t be fooled by that obvious last shot of sad bodies in repose. There is joy here, vivacity, even if it has no name and refuses to be addressed. It’s what fellow RISD grad David Byrne found when cutting open the corpses of suburban life and urban expansion in the late 70s and early 80s. Let’s hope Almada embraces it should she return to fiction again.