Cannes review: The Desert Bride (2017)

The Desert Bride (La Novia del Desierto) is a charming Argentinian road move about a woman’s late-life blossoming.

New Horizons

by Alexa Dalby

The Desert Bride

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Paulina García, the star of Gloria, is Teresa, a middle-aged Chilean woman who has spent her life as maid to a wealthy family in Buenos Aires. When they can no longer afford to keep her, they sympathetically arrange a job for her as a carer for a relative in San Juan, 600 miles away in Argentina. On the way, her bus breaks down. She has to wait for a replacement in a small town busily celebrating a local saint’s day, La Difunta Correa. In the market, she’s pressed to try on a dress by an amiable middle-aged trader who calls himself El Gringo (Claudio Rissi) but when a sudden storm descends, in the rush and confusion he accidentally drives off with her bag in his camper van.

García is luminous, at first downtrodden and disorientated by the loss of the family and child (now an adult) that she had dedicated her life to. She has to wait until the next day to track down El Gringo but when she finds him, it seems he doesn’t have her bag – he says he must have unloaded it at one of his stops en route. He offers to drive her back to them so she can find it.

And so begins her unexpected road trip with a stranger through some spectacular Argentinian landscapes and gradually, as she warms to El Gringo’s charming kindness and attention, Teresa’s horizons start to open up too. Her blossoming is simply and gently told. The gift of a pair of trainers, meetings with people who hold El Gringo dear, a friendly dinner – slowly she starts to relax and gain in confidence in the glow of his admiration.

García’s change is so subtly done that it’s heartwarming to see someone starting to become the person they could be. Flashbacks tell the story of her life with the family – the respect with which they treated her and the motherly love between her and their son, though this is contrasted with the bare cell of her small bedroom and her lack of possessions. But by slowly opening up to a new world without them, without consciously realising it at first, Teresa is able to look to the future more positively. The film gives Teresa no easy, obvious ending but her almost beatific smile in the final shots shows a woman who has found a new freedom for herself and is going to use it.

It’s a Chilean/Argentinian co-production and an appealing, confident first feature from Cecilia Atán and Valeria Pivato that has a sensitive, female focus on a working-class woman of a certain age. Cinematography by Sergio Armstrong, a regular collaborator of Pablo Larrain, creates stunning landscapes that contrast with warmly shot interiors. Leo Sujatovich’s atmospheric score features soft piano, guitar and strings with a traditional Latin feel. The Desert Bride is charming and life affirming.

The Desert Bride is now showing in the Official Selection at the 70th Cannes Film Festival.

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