Literally speaking, the title La León refers to a shuttle boat of the same name, the only means of lengthy transportation available to a group of isolated islanders inhabiting the dense wetlands of Argentina. That the film itself mimics the steady, deep currents of the river system suggests a more figurative interpretation is intended. Paced with a steady ebb and flow of tidal-like transitions, Santiago Otheguy’s impressive debut feature juxtaposes images of natural order with human acts of destruction, penetrating the surface of its subjects’ reclusive community, uncovering an organic spirituality charted along the fine line between civilized culture and a primal heart of darkness.
Central to La León‘s understated narrative thrust is the uneasy relationship between Álvaro (one of many wetland residents playing themselves in the film, though whether this is in name only or also in character is unclear), an introverted homosexual who makes a quiet living repairing books and harvesting reeds, and X, an outspoken bigot, closeted hypocrite and captain of the titular vessel. Their between-the-lines conflict parallels the happenings of the community at large: At the outset of the film, a farmer’s son has died of unclear causes, while nomadic missionaries are looting the area of the citizens’ revenue-earning natural resources even as the townsfolk celebrate the success of their championship-winning soccer team.
Otheguy’s inquisitive, deliberate pacing and exquisite mise-en-scène recalls the observant approach of a Malick or Weerasethakul film, here employing a black-and-white cinematography that captures the shades of the world with a poetic, silvery hue, in effect stripping the world of destructive politicized distractions—gender, orientation, creed—to uncover more eternally resonant truths. La León goes beyond placing its characters in a cinematic environment reflective of their habitat to effectively contextualize even the most personal of experiences as but recurring trends in the greater catalogue of human existence, one in constant flux with itself and the outside world. The film remains bound to a single time and place, but its expressionistic approach—emphasizing broad behaviors over specific personal motivations and the human presence as much as the larger natural world it occupies—opens up deeper wells of existential inquisition. It’s no criticism, then, to point out that La León is never so interesting unto itself as it is in suggesting greater things to come.