Even dusty, sleepy towns in Uruguay have their share of dramatic secrets in Bad Day to Go Fishing, an amusing and poignant fable directed by Alvaro Brechner. Set in what appears to be the 1970s, the peaceful routine of village life in Santa Maria is disrupted early one morning by the arrival of a wheezing bus carrying two strangers: slick, fast-talking Orsini (Gary Piquer) and his muscle bound business partner; a laconic hulk named van Oppen (Jouko Ahola).
Orsini, who claims to be a Prince descended from Italian royalty – and he has a business card to prove it – has come to arrange a wrestling match and will pay $1000 to any yokel who can remain in the ring with his herculean cohort for three minutes. Van Oppen, a former world champion weight lifter who has recently defected from East Germany, is now free to starve in a world where elite athletes are not subsidized by the state.
In short order, the charming Orsini uses a sympathetic editor at the local newspaper to promote the event and secures the town’s crumbling opera house as a venue. Meanwhile, van Oppen remains quietly out of sight, attempting to adhere to the rigid routine of training that defines an athlete’s life. But van Oppen’s days as a champion were long ago, and the intervening years have taken a toll on his massive body. Whether it’s the result of steroid abuse or just plain aging – the script hints at both – the champ is no longer the invincible dynamo of his youth.
And as Orsini glad hands the gullible villagers, the film slowly seduces the viewer as well. Bad Day to Go Fishing sputters in the early going – it all seems a bit obvious and familiar – but by the twenty minute mark patient viewers will suddenly realize the film has quietly captured their hearts and the minds. Brechner manages to turn our expectations upside-down by making us accept, indeed even admire, Orsini’s outrageous sleaze. Ultimately, these impromptu brawls mean more than just a payday, they give a purpose to van Oppen’s lonely life. When Orsini’s credibility is challenged by the mysterious Adriana (Antonella Costa), a woman so coldly ambitious she makes Lady Macbeth look like a rank amateur, viewers will find themselves squarely in Orsini and van Oppen’s camp.
Brechner, DP Álvaro Gutierrez, and Art Director Gustavo Ramírez are up to all sorts of visual cleverness here, giving their modest production a look of glossy refinement. Gutierrez resists the lure of noir dramatics until the film’s cathartic final reel, and presents the bulk of the film as sunny third-world revelry, with peasants and their scrawny cattle bathed in glamorous golden back light. Ramírez has clearly taken color cues from illustrated children’s stories and his sets favor the deep primary colors of comic books. Color is used as moralistic visual code; red is the predominant color any time there is a hint of deception (Orsini’s flashy car, his handkerchief magic tricks, the walls of Adriana’s cottage) while blue signals noble honesty (the newspaper offices, van Oppen’s workout gear).
While the pace may seem sluggish by Hollywood standards, this Cannes Critic’s Week selected film moves rather briskly compared to recent fare from Latin America. But at no point in its 110 minutes does the film feel over plotted or larded with filler. The dramatic conclusion is enhanced by elements of mysticism as one of the film’s mysterious characters is given an ironic context, along with revelation that van Otten, who Brechner has carefully painted as an over-the-hill burnout, still has a bit of the old championship magic.
But this is Gary Piquer’s film. Looking like a hybrid of Robert DeNiro and Frank Zappa, his Orsini is reminiscent of Rupert Pupkin from The King of Comedy. Part repulsive huckster, part lovable charmer, Piquer’s performance successfully walks a razor thin line. The golden hearted con man is hardly a new character in the annals of cinema, but Piquer’s portrayal has a rare measure of poignancy and depth. Amazingly, he makes us believe that the slick dude in the red convertible may actually be a saint.
The 16×9 transfer is sharp and rangy, if a trifle too contrasty in spots. The deep colors mentioned in the film review clearly drive the colorist’s approach, but the occasional result is some overly aggressive reds. These prompted a hostile reaction from our projector, manifested by flaring and some strange black horizontal lines. While the distraction was minor, viewers may wish to dial down the chroma on their displays just a tic. Brechner has kept his soundtrack simple and uncluttered, and the mix is clear, well balanced and utterly unremarkable. And those are all good things.
As for bonus material, the disc features two short films by Brechner. The first, Sofia, is a very funny 18 minute look into the frustrating life of a young woman. Clearly Jeunet’s Amelie was a source of inspiration, as the piece is driven by a similar wildly subjective inner dialogue.
The second offering, The Nine Mile Walk, is less successful and, indeed, embodies many of the attributes that often make short films annoying. Cerebral and pedantic, the film feels like the work of a graduate student exceptionally pleased with himself. Piquer has the lead here, but even his charismatic presence, plus some lovely photography of Toledo, Spain, can’t save this 20 minute clunker.
Two new, and potentially major, talents emerge from the quirky shadows of Bad Day to Go Fishing: director Alvaro Brechner and actor Gary Piquer. The two have taken a familiar story – the script has shades of The Music Man, Hard Times and The Wrestler, to name a few – and added just enough eccentricity to create a tableau that seems fresh and limitless. The success of Pedro Almodovar has inspired a new generation of Spanish language auteurs to push beyond Hollywood imitation to a cinema that truly speaks to the soul. Whether it’s the austere minimalism of Reygadas or the precise character studies of de Aranoa, Spanish culture has become an incubator of interesting and inventive filmmaking. The arid humor and rich humanity of Bad Day to Go Fishing deserves a favored spot in this new cinematic school, and we wouldn’t be surprised to find either Brechner or Piquer at the head of the class one day.