Seeking clarity in the hazy streets

Times Staff Writer

Veronica Chen's "Smokers Only" is a venturesome, beautifully realized psychological mood piece that reveals its first-time feature director's understanding of the expressive power of the camera. What she reveals about her characters visually and how they see the world and their place in it and in turn how Chen views them makes this an exquisite, subtle film that suggests Chen is a risk-taker with a vision all her own.

Reni (Cecilia Bengolea) and Andres (Leonardo Brezicki), both 20, meet one night at a downtown Buenos Aires ATM when he discovers she has left her bank card in the machine. They are mutually attracted, but Andres, a sometime roller-blader, states right at the top that he is a hustler and if she wants sex with him she will have to pay. A punkish singer and songwriter at a crossroads in her life, Reni has no intention of paying for sex but is drawn to Andres anyway.

Reni doesn't know if she wants to keep on with the band she's been with for some time, and the band in turn would like her to move on. She talks about leaving the city but at the moment is drifting. Like Andres, she likes the city best at night and starts hanging out with him as he cruises the boulevards for business. She begins to fall in love, and he responds in kind despite his edict.

However, for Reni their romance opens a chasm rather than bringing them together. Andres loves the street life, loves prostituting himself for the sense of power it gives him over others and is a pragmatist in every sense. He is content and would be perfectly happy if Reni were to work with him.

The film gradually becomes a wordless portrait of a deeply reflective young woman in an emotional dilemma. She's uncertain of what she wants out of life but is also increasingly certain of what she doesn't want and thus begins the process of discovering whether she has the resolve to do something about it.

We know nothing about Reni's and Andres' families or personal history, which is fine except that it probably would be less distracting if we had a hint of their educational background. That's because both are remarkably articulate, and Reni describes the city as an octopus with its tentacles everywhere, a monster that inspires one to consume, buying things when one doesn't even know what their purpose is. As an observation it's a bit callow, but exactly the sort of remark an educated 20-year-old might make. In short, Reni and Andres probably talk a lot like Chen (or her co-writer Alejandro Sapognikoff) rather than most young people who live so much of their lives in nighttime streets.

Yet "Smokers Only" is a deeply personal reverie, and with the aid of a highly gifted camera crew, Veronica Chen leaves us with the feeling that she has expressed herself precisely as she had intended.


'Smokers Only'

MPAA rating: unrated

Times guidelines: nudity, sex, adult themes

Cecilia Bengolea...Reni

Leonardo Brezicki...Andres

Adrian Fondari...Hotel Client

Carlos Issa...Charly

Pablo Razuk...Band Manager

A Strand Releasing presentation of Serene Skyline-Ezeiza Films-B/D/Cine co-production. Director-editor Veronica Chen. Producer Donald K. Ranvaud. Executive producer Martin De Arbelaiz. Screenplay by Chen, in collaboration with Alejandro Sapognikoff. Cinematographer Nicolas Theodossiou. Music Pablo Siriani. Art director Julian D'Angiolillo. Running time: I hour, 27 minutes. In Spanish, with English subtitles. Exclusively at the Laemmle Fairfax, 7907 Beverly Blvd., L.A. (323) 655-4010.

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