Saturday, September 26, 2009

Arriaga's "The Burning Plain": more layered storytelling


Sometimes storytelling really works best out of sequence. The latest film from Magnolia and 2929, directed by Guillermo Arriaga, “The Burning Plain”, demonstrates that, in a layered drama involving several people in two generations. As the film opens, we watch a mobile home is desolate desert mountain country (near the Mexican border) burn up, and pretty soon we are engrossed in a drama involving a woman Sylvia (Charlize Theron) from present day Portland, Oregon (somehow reminding me of “Birddog”) and Gina (Kim Basinger) from the past, a woman who shows the scars of breast cancer. Sylvia is quite troubled about the past as her current partner Santiago (Danny Pino) faces loss of a leg, and then we learn about a somewhat forbidden and tortuous romance a couple decades before near the border (J. D. Pardo is quite powerful as the young Santiago). Gina had done some brazen things, like branding herself and Santiago on the arm, which rather gives hint to her nature.

The film is a smaller concept that “Babel”, which Arriaga conceptualized and then wrote, but it has some of the same techniques and vision as that film, as well as “21 Grams”. We experience the film in “psychological sequence” rather than chronological; the scenes are short and jump between decades very abruptly. Yet, this kind of narrative really works with this kind of mystery to solve.

The film, unlike the previous two, is shot at full 2.35:1.

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