Director of Photography:
Tomás Perez Silva
Running time: 101 minutes
It’s difficult to imagine Marco Berger making a winter movie.
From the beautiful sunset of one of his first short films, The Watch, to the evergreen bubble of lush gardens in rural Argentina that is a constant metaphor for the budding relationship in Hawaii, his films have always been optimistic about the possibility of finding love, or at least of finding someone. That possibility, however, is not without its ups and downs, and one should never make assumptions about anyone else’s interests or intentions.
Hawaii is a refreshing return to form for Berger after his tense and visually frigid second film, Ausente. Having secured more than $22,000 through the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter (disclaimer: I also made a contribution of less than one-half of 1 percent), Marco Berger and co-producer Pedro Irusta set about shooting a film they had initially planned to make with twice the budget. The product is surprisingly well-crafted, and perhaps thanks to Berger’s experience on the short-film anthology Sexual Tension: Volatile, he appears to be in complete control even as he tells a story that one expects to take up much less time.
The world of the film almost exclusively belongs to its two central characters, Eugenio and Martin, played by Manuel Vignau and the curious, wide-eyed Uruguayan actor Mateo Chiarino, respectively. With the exception of three brief scenes, they provide the only interaction of the film, and our attention is focused on the flowering of their relationship alone over the course of a few weeks during the summer.
Martin is homeless. He sleeps in the bushes under a small blanket and goes from house to house during the day asking for work. Eventually, he arrives at the gates of a large property, where the slightly bearded Eugenio, two or three years his senior, tells him the house actually belongs to his uncle, but that he needs help around the house. As Martin is about to leave, he realises he knows Eugenio from many years ago, when he spent time in the area before moving to Uruguay.
The rest of the film looks at the gradual shedding of secrets and the intimacy of shared childhood memories, which bring the two closer together.
Hawaii’s simplicity is only illusory, but the questions the viewer has as the actions unfolds will be answered – or, at the very least, framed through the prism of humanity – by the end of the film in a way that ties together the loose ends. Berger expertly manages his characters’ secrets, some of which we know from the beginning, and some of which he only lets us in on over time. Almost surprisingly, homosexuality is not really one of these secrets, although it is referenced obliquely, but Berger knows that we would assume these two characters are keeping that secret, and in the process we may see the forest for the trees – in other words, we may miss the more important story, which is the growth of a relationship outside the limits imposed by supposedly keeping sexuality a secret.
Such optimism also illuminated Berger’s début feature, Plan B, in which two straight men realise they have feelings for each other. That is not to say Hawaii is devoid of tension: After a major revelation, we can feel the characters almost unable to speak to each other, and yet we will soon come to realise the source of anxiety is not quite what we think. Berger is not fooling us on purpose as much as he seems to indicate that people have their reasons, and we have to be more patient to fully comprehend them, instead of drawing an all-too-simple conclusion.
His hair styled in a butch cut, Martin at first appears to be a very straightforward role, but over time we recognise the combination of vulnerability and survival that has brought him this far, and he doesn’t want anyone’s pity. He only appears to be slightly naïve, but just because he does not spend his time writing or drawing, like Eugenio, does not mean he is not sensitive.
He, and the viewer, wants questions answered, but he does not blindly rush toward an explanation. Perhaps the viewer is more impatient, trying to figure out what it means when one touches the other lightly on the shoulder, or when Martin puts his hand on Eugenio’s chest to feel his heartbeat. Is this a game? And do they both know what they are feeling themselves, or are they in the dark about their own emotions? How close can the one allow himself to be to the other without causing suspicion?
These questions are central to the experience, and it is impressive to see Berger pose them to us without seeming to tease us, and yet, at the same time, he keeps our attention on the development of the story and of these characters.
Later, when Martin picks up one of Eugenio’s T-shirts and puts it on, we wonder whether he wants to be more like Eugenio or if there is something more intimate to this gesture. Berger keeps us in the dark, but it is not to create some false kind of tension. It is the most natural scene in the world, and yet he has imbued it with an ambiguity that is audacious and spot-on.
The first 15 minutes of the film, almost entirely without dialogue, seem to belong to a different film altogether, but far from being an artistic flaw, we eventually there is some meaning behind this, too: These 15 minutes are used to sketch a world where Eugenio and Martin have not yet met each other as adults. Once they do, it is as if the world they inhabit also changes, and the result is a film that we can savour.
Hawaii contains clever compositions that do not attract attention but demand more attention because they are deceptively simple. One example is when Martin looks at himself in the mirror in Eugenio’s room. A few minutes later, Berger only needs to show us Eugenio looking in front of him to realise he is actually looking at a reflection of Martin behind him, changing his clothes, and no reverse shot is even necessary.
That kind of oblique look, of knowing what the viewer sees and what the character sees without showing him looking, is missing, unfortunately, from a later scene next to the river. That scene in Brokeback Mountain when Jake Gyllenhaal is peeling a potato and refuses to look behind him at Heath Ledger changing his clothes was awe-inspiring because we knew exactly what was going on in Gyllenhaal’s character’s mind. The scene next to the river in Hawaii eschews this subtlety in favour of more explicit leering.
The rest of the film contains a great deal of contemplation, and while we often don’t know what goes through the characters’ minds, we have some idea. An early shot shows Martin filling a water bottle at a tap before the camera focuses on his crotch. It is a subtle hint at the frustration he keeps hidden, but this frustration helps us understand his character rather than the story, which is a good thing, even though it does make Eugenio rather difficult to decipher.
Then again, perhaps that is life. This is the world occupied by the two main characters, and by them alone, and yet we don’t feel like voyeurs but rather like explorers (incidentally, the film cites Jules Verne from time to time) who share some of the joy of their experience.
Just like Plan B, Berger’s Hawaii is a film that will make its many homosexual viewers happy to be gay. It is not political, and it is not about gay guilt or repression or angst about coming out. On the contrary, it shows how wonderful it is to be alive and be with someone who is comfortable around you, and it treats the possibility of finding love as a reality.