Argentinian Santiago Mitre’s newest feature film, Paulina, takes an unflinching stab at the conversation surrounding not just rape’s psychological effects, but the complication of how judicial systems react to it. Set in rural Argentina, somewhere near the border of Paraguay, it follows Paulina Vidal (Dolores Fonzi) and her father Fernando (Oscar Martinez) in the wake of a brutal sexual assault that leaves Paulina not only emotionally traumatized but pregnant to boot. The crime happened while Paulina was teaching politics at a local school in a program her father, a judge, helped to install. Paulina’s insistence on handling the aftermath of the rape her own way - without arrest, trial, or aborting her pregnancy - is incomprehensible to her father and the rest of Paulina’s peers.
Reviewing Paulina leaves many options for a journalist, but two strategies loom large: the straightforward way, and the way that dives into a mess that nobody gets paid enough to write about. For the sake of word count, emotional sanity, and the aforementioned pay rate, we’ll stick with straightforward.
Paulina is, at its heart, a movie about women’s choice. As in, whether they have any. Time and time again, Paulina is denied a choice. Of course, rape is by definition an act that violates a person against their choosing. Then, when she wants to resolve the event own way and forgo judicial action, her father goes above her head and uses his connections to have the attackers brutally attacked*. Last of all, her choice to continue her pregnancy is met with hot contestation from everyone in her life. Even her boyfriend Alberto (Esteban Lamothe), who by all accounts is unsavory and unhelpful, tries to force his wishes on Paulina even after he stormed out of her hospital room and left for Paraguay, when he later meets covertly with Paulina’s father. Their conversation is particularly discomforting - see it transcribed and translated below.
Alberto: “Lo va a tener, no?” (She’s going to have [the child], isn’t she?)
Fernando: “No sé.” (I don’t know.)
Alberto: “No vas a hacer nada?” (You’re not going to do anything?)
Fernando: “No hay mucho que puedo hacer. Es ella que decidia.” (There isn’t much that I can do. It’s her decision.)
Alberto: “Pues, no está bien, no pueda decidir.” (That’s nonsense, she’s not fit to decide.)
Fernando: “Ya lo sé, pero algo así.” (I know that, but that’s the way it is.)
Alberto: “No entiendo como puedes estar tan tranquilo. Para mí, ella necesita ayuda y yo no puedo.” (I don’t understand how you can be so calm. She needs help, and I can’t help her.)
Fernando: “Yo te aseguro que estoy intentando.” (I assure you, I’m trying.)
Mitre’s attempt to address the question of choice is commendable - one of Fonzi’s best-delivered lines, spoken to her belligerent father, is “Este hijo es el resultado de una realidad que no puedes entender” (“This child is the result of a reality that you cannot understand”). This comes, however, after her father shouts repeatedly “No sos una heroina. Sos una victima!” (“You are not a hero. You are a victim!”) Still, Mitre doesn’t begin to halfway unpack the difficulties surrounding victimization, and the quagmire that he creates when a man shout those words at a woman.
There are so many moments where Paulina has the right to a choice taken away from her, and so many instances where she tries to teach politics to her students and they fail to understand the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or the audience is smacked with the complicated irony that a woman trained as a lawyer is not pursuing quote-unquote justice for her attackers. Mitre does do a fair job of beginning to examine the hypocrisy of justice as we know it, and his clever non-chronological sequencing reinforces the notion that no one person ever has another person’s full story.
But the complications of discussing rape culture within a world of farcical democracies that enable patriarchal institutions are not exactly conducive to easy filmmaking. While Mitre’s long, steady shots and a tense, silent score work with inarguably powerful acting to create a technically beautiful movie, the content is so volatile and so tender - especially for any sexual assault victims who may watch - that it is hard to give Mitre a perfect score, or even focus on the more aesthetic aspects of the movie. The failure to address victimization and the camera’s overt sympathizing with Paulina’s father, almost overshadowing the sympathy the camera feels for Paulina, are points for Mitre to consider going forward.
At the film’s end, dusk falls. Having alienated her father and her boyfriend, and confused her friend, Paulina walks a long, winding path. She walks alone.
Editor's note: Judgement on whether or not attacking rapists and their enablers/bystanders is warranted is a topic for a book or a Twitter @-chain, not this review.