THE GLOBE AND MAIL - Off World: An art film set in a refuse heap

March 16 2012

As an audience we know how Lucky (Marc Abaya) feels. Twenty minutes into Off World, we have had quite enough of the film’s moping protagonist, whose undefined problems seem unworthy of the surrounding film.

Lucky’s ennui comes off as petty – an unpardonable indulgence in the context of the true suffering experienced in Smokey Mountain.

Fortunately for Lucky (and for us too), a Sister of Mercy, Julia (Che Ramos) saves the disintegrating seeker and helps nurse Lucky and Off World back to health. The game social worker re-introduces the North American visitor to his gay, transvestite brother. Lucky eventually finds his mother … his past … himself.

Yes, Off World is an upper-case Art Movie. And Paris-born Toronto filmmaker Mateo Guez is not without talent or camera sense. The French birthplace is significant. For the attitudes and themes here are frankly European: Emotional alienation manifest in a graphic, foreign landscape, a motif that stretches throughout the film, is an idea right out of Antonioni’s Red Desert or Zabriskie Point. And Off World’s romantic disenchantment is the stuff of Bertolucci, with whom the filmmaker worked on The Dreamers (2003).

Guez has a few thoughtful touches of his own. He poses North American and Filipino characters on bridges at a dozen or so points in his feature debut, artfully promoting the idea of spanning cultures. Perhaps Canada’s pie-in-the-sky, multicultural mandate is rubbing off on him. Or maybe the writer-director shrewdly figured that such a pose would work with our cultural funding agencies.

Nothing wrong with that; we could use more filmmakers with business moxie. Here’s hoping that Guez will review his source inspirations. Antonioni and Bertolucci both worked best when they found attractive, compelling leads to decorate arresting landscapes. Think of Monica Vitti in Red Desert. Or Jean-Louis Trintignant and Dominique Sanda in The Conformist. More recently, consider any of Wong Kar-Wai’s delirious, fashion-spread dreamscapes.

It would be interesting to see what Guez, a director who clearly knows his way around a camera, might be able to do with a few charismatic actors.

Off World