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MOVIE REVIEW : A ‘Place’ to Celebrate Friendship and Ideals

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Adolfo Aristarain’s superb “A Place in the World” is at once a memory film, an exceptionally intelligent coming-of-age story, a commentary on Argentina’s turbulent, harrowing, recent political history and a consideration of just how much an individual can hope to accomplish with his or her life.

Beyond all this, it is a warm and good-humored celebration of adult friendship and strong family ties. In short, it is remarkable how much Aristarain’s film encompasses while involving us with the kind of density and detail we associate with the most inviting novels. Intriguingly, he has stated that his film was inspired by “Shane” and “How Green Was My Valley.”

(What a shame that this beautiful, rueful yet inspiriting picture, an Argentina-Uruguay co-production, was nominated for a best foreign film Oscar for the awards ceremony held in 1993, only to be disqualified over a conflict in regard to its country of origin.)

The film unfolds as a flashback when a young man visits a small remote town (which could easily pass as a desert outpost in the American Southwest) for the first time in nine years. With the same effortless grace that Aristarain uses to introduce his various themes, he swiftly acquaints us with that man as an adolescent, Ernesto (Gaston Batyi), and a host of others who will impact upon his life. The key figures are Ernesto’s parents, Mario (Federico Luppi) and Ana (Cecilia Roth); their friend, a nun named Nelda (Leonor Benedetto); and a newcomer named Hans (Jose Sacristan), a Madrid geologist hired by the local landowner to investigate the possibility of oil reserves in the area.

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All in good time we learn that Mario and Ana were driven into exile during Argentina’s military dictatorship. Upon returning, they struck out for Bermejo Valley, where they formed a cooperative with the local peasants, mainly sheepherders. Mario teaches school while Ana, a physician, runs a clinic.

They are in perfect sync with Nelda, a witty, devout but free-thinking activist who refuses to wear traditional nun’s garb. The sheer, down-to-earth goodness of these three dedicated but embracing people will have a crucial effect upon the cynical, lonely Hans, a peripatetic two-time divorce. Meantime, Ernesto is experiencing first love with Luciana, a local girl (Lorena Del Rio) whom he teaches how to read, despite her father’s disapproval.

These people are truly charismatic, and the emotional heart of the film really is in mealtime gatherings, marked by amusing, passionate and intellectual conversation of a level heard rarely outside an Eric Rohmer film. Because Aristarain in his prologue has introduced a sense of the transitory quality of life, we soon experience that familiar feeling of the overwhelming obstacles facing those who try to make a difference, or merely to live a decent life.

Aristarain touches upon that universal, highly contemporary sense that we are powerless to control our destinies. Yet in the face of such feelings, Mario realizes that he has discovered his “place in the world,” and with it the belief that it’s worth standing his ground--even if that ground seems to be crumbling beneath him.

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How refreshing it is to be in the company of such talented actors bringing to life people who are worth caring about. The film, which has an especially evocative score, is in particular another triumph for the handsome, silver-haired Luppi, who makes Mario a figure of unpretentious nobility. Most recently seen in the darkly humorous horror picture “Cronos,” both he and Aristarain achieved international renown in 1981 with the scathing, compelling political allegory, “Time for Revenge.”

* MPAA rating: Unrated. Times guidelines: It examines complex adult themes, but without violence; it is suitable for mature teen-agers.

‘A Place in the World’

Jose Sacristan: Hans

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Federico Luppi: Mario

Cecilia Roth: Ana

Leonor Benedetto: Nelda

Gaston Batyi: Ernesto

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Lorena Del Rio: Luciana

A First Look Pictures release. Producer-director Adolfo Aristarain. Executive producer Isidro Miguel. Screenplay by Aristarain with Alberto Lecchi; from a story by Aristarain and Kathy Saavedra. Cinematographer Ricardo De Angelis. Editor Eduardo Lopez. Costumes Saavedra. Art director Abel Facello. In Spanish with English subtitles. Running time: 2 hous, 4 minutes.

* In limited release at the Royal Theater, 11523 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 477-5581.


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