The black-and-white photography in Santiago Otheguy's "La León" has a beautiful charcoal smokiness. The early shots of water rippling on an Argentine jungle river have a living Ansel Adams serenity. But the atmosphere surrounding the images and their subsequent arrangement is sorrowful to the point of feeling woebegone. As it happens, in the opening minutes there's a funeral underway - a man killed himself over a woman. That's the story, anyway. Over the course of Otheguy's slice-of-mid-tempo naturalism, you're allowed to wonder whether the cause of death was some other kind of love.
A lot of the film takes place across the serious face of Alvaro (Jorge Román), a Paraguayan working amid the marshy conditions of an Argentine island. The men of the island struggle with its natural resources and talk of missionaries. But the camera concerns itself with the particulars of Alvaro's daily life: his bookbinding; his gathering of reeds; his strained friendship with Turu (Daniel Valenzuela), the driver of El Lion, the local water taxi; his trysting with a man who appears to own a yacht that Alvaro's boat passes. Alvaro is a kids' soccer coach, a laborer, a lover. Román's face contains a tale of youth in retreat. He is schoolboyish yet seasoned, somewhere between Josh Brolin's teenaged "Goonies" days and the Charles Bronson of "Mr. Majestyk."
Otheguy sustains his comely foreboding as long as he can. He has a knack for long, gorgeous shots and captures the occasional surprise in the humdrum passage of time. But even in a work of realism, the characters need something to do, and Otheguy focuses hard on the tension between Alvaro and Turu, whose hostility toward his friend's homosexuality begins to take up such an inordinate amount of narrative space that anyone can see where this relationship is headed. And you feel a writer's hand forcing what had previously felt so natural.
"La León" is Otheguy's first feature, and his cinematic mannerisms are all assured. Throughout this sensual, earthy undertaking, I thought a lot about the increasingly brilliant Mexican director Carlos Reygadas ("Battle in Heaven" and the upcoming "Silent Light") and the great Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul ("Blissfully Yours," "Syndromes and a Century"), two men who take different approaches to a kind of magic-realist realism. Where his characters are concerned, Otheguy's feet are more on the ground. But he's just as concerned as those two can be with imbuing atmosphere with blips of spiritual rapture. Otheguy might still be working out the convincing details of human nature, but one film in, he already has the hang of panoramic loneliness.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.