The Distinguished Citizen
Michael Potts | 20/04/2017
The Distinguished Citizen, an Argentine-Spanish production, gives its audience a sometimes dry, sometimes disillusioned, but always honest take on the meaning of artistry and its purpose in the world today.
The film follows the story of a fictional Argentinian writer and Nobel Laureate, Daniel Mantovani, who for some forty years has lived in Europe but decides almost on a whim to return to his home town of Salas to accept the award of ‘Distinguished Citizen’ from its Mayor. Upon arriving he quickly finds the memories and relationships he left behind, though they are caught up amongst fundamental differences between himself and the small town, rural status quo.
Throughout his time in the town of his youth, Mantovani is faced with a number of questions about his work, his validity as an artist and ultimately whether his time has passed. As the story progresses, it appears that a great deal of his experiences of Salas have stayed with him, both personally and in his work, than his attitude would at first suggest. Despite living half a world away for four decades, all of Mantovani’s stories can be sourced back to that town, and one or two even seem to parallel his own life.
The camerawork in The Distinguished Citizen is slightly shaky. At first it feels clumsy, but ultimately this adds to the experience instead of hurting it. Watching the film feels much more like being there as opposed to watching a polished but artificial presentation of events, which is appropriate for what the movie is trying to present. It also fits nicely with the small town, middle-of-nowhere setting.
This is complemented well by the acting. Oscar Martínez gives a measured performance as Mantovani, making it easy to feel the awkwardness of many scenes where the Nobel Prize Winner is lavished with near deification by the citizens of Salas, as well as his contained but always evident disdain of others who either refuse to have their ways of life and positions of power challenged, or seek to tar his own reputation as a writer. At no time is a scene overacted.
The supporting cast is of variable quality, but overall create a believable mix of simple country folk, self-concerned local establishment figures and an eclectic mix of others. The film is intentionally awkward, and in some instances feels almost like a mockumentary due to the strangeness of some of the citizens of Salas, but Mantovani’s character provides an excellent foil and keeps everything grounded.
An interesting feature of this picture is its sparing use of music, which allows the vast majority of the scenes to stand on their own, with nothing to add to the emotion and drama but the events and performances therein. This works in the film’s favour, making it seem far more sincere about its subject matter and the answers it seeks to give about the central theme of artistry.
The Distinguished Citizen tells a simple but effective story. It is willing to show an ugliness in the back and forth human struggle between change and continuity, between competing truths and opposing powers. Yet at the same time it is never particularly vulgar, even though violence and sexuality are given some space. Nor does it come across as bleak, despite the cynicism that at times breaks through. Overall it is an enjoyable watch, particularly for those after something just a little different from standard fare drama.