Cecilia Atán and Valeria Pivato's The Desert Bride concludes, in an homage to Nights of Cabiria, with its protagonist acknowledging the spectator by looking directly into the camera. But little else about Atán and Pivato's debut feature compares to Federico Fellini's masterpiece, which is distinguished by its regional detail and cultural critique and culminates in an honest, earned conclusion of hope mixed with despair. By contrast, Atán and Pivato attempt to wring similar pathos from a threadbare story lacks in complexity.
After Teresa (Paulina García) finds herself stranded on the road to San Juan, she accepts a ride from a travelling salesman, El Gringo (Claudio Rissi), across Argentina's mountainous regions. Teresa, having been recently fired after a long stint as a live-in maid for a family in Buenos Aires, must uproot herself if she hopes to stay afloat financially. Fellini developed empathy for Cabiria by dramatizing her unrealizable desire for happiness and contentment through a multitude of scenarios, whereas Atán and Pivato make Teresa's overtly symbolic journey from self-pity to self-esteem a prolonged, monotone event.
Flashbacks reveal Teresa's anodyne behavior over the years while caring for a wealthy family that was never malicious toward her—only now they lack the necessary funds to keep her employed. In the present, El Gringo offers Teresa the comfort of a guided tour informed by his evident affection for her, doting on her with small gifts and leading her up a rocky trail for a better view of the mountainside. Their scenes inside his van reveal a man searching for a human connection that the winding Argentinian roads alone cannot afford. Aside from telling a little white lie that keeps Teresa in tow, El Gringo contains no ulterior motives or violent intent. He, like all the characters in The Desert Bride, is fundamentally kind; in fact, the film is less driven by an external conflict of either verbal disagreement or economic inequality than by quietly charting how these people start to make peace with their insecurities.
As two-handers go, the film has a moderately compelling pair of performances at its center, with Rissi's take on a fun-loving road warrior providing an amusing, if obvious, counterpoint to García's reserved homebody. The problem with the contrasting of El Gringo and Teresa's personas lies in Atán and Pivato's screenplay, which conceives vague scenarios for the metaphorical potential of having two lonely souls wandering through the desert, with its open spaces ironically suggesting nothing but enclosure to Teresa as she longs to assume another position within a new home. Flashbacks that see her making beds and folding clothes emphasize her isolation. Teresa also has a traumatic past, given that her parents were killed in an earthquake, a point of exposition that the filmmakers integrate into The Desert Bride for the purpose of psychologically defining Teresa's repression. These superficial details contribute to a thematic thinness that the actors alone cannot overcome.
There are some striking shots in The Desert Bride, particularly a colorful frame within a frame inside a bar. Isolated, these images suggest characters trapped within an intricate assortment of desert roads, watering holes, and souvenir shops. The whole of the film, though, is more fixated on Teresa's gradual personal and sexual reawakening. Like Sebastián Lelio's Gloria, in which García starred as the eponymous character, Atán and Pivato's film believes that a personal reformulation of one's disposition can be achieved by determination alone. While such wishful thinking might prove attractive to the filmmakers as a way to resolve Teresa's decades-long hang-ups, it's also a nifty means to keep the intricacies of self-identification out of sight.