Santiago Mitre’s Paulina pits its uncompromising protagonist, played with stoic implacability by Dolores Fonzi, against an array of men who force her to test the depths of her strongly held beliefs about justice and freedom of choice. Paulina drops out of law school in Buenos Aires in order to teach a class about politics and rights as part of an inclusion program at a school for disadvantaged indigenous teens near the Argentina-Paraguay border. Her decision comes as a shock to her father, Fernando (Oscar Martinez), who ironically was integral to the school’s inception but, as a left-wing judge, believes she could best serve the community as a lawyer. Paulina accuses him of transforming into a reactionary in his old age, insisting that he merely wants her to have a more prestigious title even if it means going against what she sees as her moral obligation to help those less fortunate than herself.
Upon arriving at the new school, Paulina gets a rude awakening when she begins teaching the nature of democracy and empowers her students by reminding them that politicians and teachers work for them and not the other way around. The students, though, prove more cunning and clever than she expects, challenging her supposedly egalitarian teaching methods. When she attempts to describe democracy through a game that gives everyone in the class the opportunity to create the rules, a male student reminds Paulina that, as she created the game and the boundaries inherent in its structure, she remains ostensibly more powerful than her students. Such notions of privilege are teased out throughout the film as Paulina strives yet struggles to put herself on an even playing field with her impoverished students.
The heavily academic setup that the film constructs early on abruptly clashes with a reality that’s brutally indifferent to Paulina’s implementation of her burgeoning ideals. She’s raped by a group of men who mistake her for one of their ex-girlfriends, and while she didn’t see their faces, she begins to sense that some of her students were among the rapists, a fact that’s soon confirmed by one of her friends. Paulina’s curious reaction, or lack thereof, to the rape is as confounding as Michèle’s in Paul Verhoeven’s Elle, yet rather than veering toward the transgressive, Mitre’s film remains on more theoretical ground. The overly schematic and emotionally distant nature of this approach is problematic at times but is mitigated by Fonzi’s performance, which conveys an unflappable sense of both tenacity and compassion.
Although Fernando and Paulina’s boyfriend, Alberto (Esteban Lamoth), both living back in Buenos Aires, are sympathetic and reassuring in the aftermath of the rape, they’re enraged upon learning that not only does Paulina want to hold off on pressing charges and handle the situation herself, but that she doesn’t want to terminate the pregnancy that resulted from the rape. What’s seen as an affront and pure provocation by the men in her life is viewed as an act of grace by Paulina herself. Despite fully comprehending the evilness of what was done to her, she rejects others’ claims that she’s suffering from Stockholm syndrome. Her desire to protect the indigenous community is further strengthened when her father’s interference and demands for swift justice lead to the guilty men having confessions beaten out of them. In her quest for large-scale social justice, Paulina rejects the male-driven reactive, vigilante forms of justice enacted around her, using her body to perform a revolutionary act of rebellion against the systemic injustice that creates the sort of impoverished communities she wishes to help.
Paulina is appropriately unsettling and disconcerting in its complex examination of the gray area that lies between the morals we conceptually hold and the actions we’re willing to perform to affirm those beliefs in the world. What at first reeks of a potential rape apology is ultimately about the individual nature of female empowerment. Paulina’s decisions may not align with the logical or behavioral norms of someone in her situation, but they’re unequivocally her own and, like the student who challenged the supposedly just limitations she laid out in her classroom illustration of democracy, she refuses to accept the rules laid out by those who attempt to enforce her actions and emotions. Against the patriarchy, Paulina persists.