‘Paulina’ is one of the most challenging movies to hit screens in a while. That’s neither a criticism nor a reflection of a difficulty understanding the movie. Though director/co-writer Santiago Mitre’s film is an intellectual endeavor, it’s also easy to follow and comprehend. The challenge comes in reconciling with the unpleasant realities, politics, and ideas that the filmmaker shoves before your eyes and forces you to contemplate.
Dolores Fonzi stars as the titular Paulina, a radically political young woman determined to rally against the society (especially the men) that contain her. At first, that comes in the form of angering her father (Oscar Martinez) by dropping out of law school to teach politics to disadvantaged indigenous teens, believing that will be a greater help to the community. Then she battles against her students, desperately attempting to teach them of the virtues of democracy and empowering them in her classroom despite the inherent hypocrisy of the assignment.
These overt political debates and discussions aren’t really the meat of the movie. Things take a turn for the worse when Paulina is raped and impregnated by an unseen group of men who are likely her students. She reacts in a curiously sedate manner even more unsettling than that depicted in Paul Verhoeven’s ‘Elle’ last year. Paulina elects to not only hold off on pressing charges, but to keep the baby. This infuriates her father, her boyfriend, and every other man in her life. However, Paulina remains steadfast in her convictions. She rejects the reactive justice (vigilante and otherwise) of the men around her as a rebellion against the systemic injustice that is her most passionate cause.
This is certainly a rough movie to watch. It can feel problematic and confused at times, but Mitre remains unwavering in his unconventional approach to the subject matter. More importantly, Dolores Fonzi creates a character of such relatable compassion and political concern that her behavior feels believable. Many viewers will balk outright at her character’s actions and convictions. That’s fair. It’s safe to say that Mitre intended his film to be provocative and divisive. The character is also deliberately inscrutable despite also being fascinating. The film offers no easy answers or insight. Viewers are forced to reconcile their own beliefs and feelings with the uncompromising narrative and ideas shoved before them.
To further complicate matters, Mitre toys with chronology throughout the film. The sexual assault recurs through varying perspectives, both to highlight the inescapable mental circles associated with this type of trauma and also to force viewers to confront various reactions to the events from various sources (including the rapist himself). That makes the film more psychologically and politically complex. By forcing us to consider and reconsider these horrific events and confused responses from so many viewpoints, the film resists simplistic finger-pointing or messaging. It’s all there to consider, like a Rorschach test with Fonzi’s devastating yet carefully controlled performance holding it together. It would have been too pat for the actress to prescribe unambiguous emotions or psychological explanations into her actions, but she stays as ambiguous as the director while still remaining painfully human in her portrayal.
Shot without show-off style, yet with utter control, ‘Paulina’ is a well-constructed movie that lets its ideas take center stage. Some viewers will be infuriated, others fascinated. Both responses are valid and neither are wholly correct. The film is ultimately about power and control. Paulina has claimed control of this devastating situation in her own way and, ultimately, it’s entirely her decision to make. To question the movie’s motives is to behave like the flailing men around her. You just have to accept them and draw your own conclusions. It’s a fascinating polemic and, while not a film for everyone, it won’t easily be forgotten by those who dare to confront it.