Sleepwalking into tragedy: Érica Rivas and Ornella D’Elia lead an exceptional cast in Paula Hernández’s simmering and intimate family drama, The Sleepwalkers, which was selected as Argentina’s official contender for the 2021 Academy Awards.
In her fourth feature film, the acclaimed director continues to explore themes characteristic of her work thus far: different worlds colliding, and the ways in which individuals negotiate the irreversible effects of time and distance on relationships and identities. Here, however, these themes are tightly focussed on and restricted to the most intimate context of all – the family – in Hernández’s most absorbing and affecting film to date.
The film depicts rising tensions within a middle-class Argentine family during a summer vacation to a country retreat. The film builds to an explosive and emotional climax, which offers a social commentary of few words on the silence around sexual assault within still patriarchal family dynamics.
The opening scene shows Luisa (Rivas) awakening in the middle of the night to find the teenage Ana (D’Elia) sleepwalking. While somnambulism is later revealed to be a hereditary trait within the family, giving the film’s title a literal sense, it also serves as a broader metaphor for the way in which several of the film’s characters are in many ways ‘asleep’ to the broader political and social world that exists beyond their own perceptions and judgements. This condition ultimately proves catastrophic, as the family ‘sleepwalks’ into a tragic and violent finale, which they fail to see unravelling before their eyes.
Present at the ill-fated gathering are Luisa’s husband Emilio (Luiz Ziembrowksi), his siblings Sergio (Daniel Hendler) and Inés (Valeria Lois), the matriarchal grandmother Meme (Marilú Marini), several children and a newborn baby. The focus here, however, rests primarily on Luisa and Ana. Somewhat alienated from the patriarchal side of the family, Luisa is shown to be in a state of existential malaise from the outset, portrayed with outstanding nuance by Rivas (Wild Tales).
The familial frictions which begin to brew almost immediately regarding the fate of the ancestral home and the handling of the family business create an environment of tension in which Luisa’s inner turmoil comes bubbling to the surface. This was never the way Luisa had wanted to spend the New Year, a fact which is overruled or ignored by Emilio, a self-proclaimed ‘homebody’. Ziembrowski (One Love) is excellent as a father and husband desperate to keep things together in order to minimise conflict and change, even if it entails a seemingly wilful obliviousness to the inner struggles and desires of the two women closest to him.
Meanwhile, Ana is experiencing her own alienation from familial constraints and childish ways as she enters the confusing turbulence of adolescence. Her inner conflict manifests outwardly as sullen irritability, occasional outbursts and a retreat into social media – brilliantly captured by the fifteen-year-old D’Elia – until her eye is caught by her handsome and mysterious older cousin, Alejo, portrayed by Rafael Federman. At the family reunion, she begins to resent impingements on her personal autonomy and while Luisa seeks solace from her own discontent by attempting to build a closer bond with her daughter, Ana finds her mother overbearing and suffocating.
Most tragically of all, however, Luisa’s protective concerns turn out not to be entirely unfounded, and the film’s shocking and violent finale leads to reflection on the current feminist movement in Argentina, a country in which domestic abuse and femicide has soared during the pandemic lockdowns.
Groups such as Ni Una Menos have worked to challenge the ‘silent pacts’ within patriarchal family structures that so often silence the victims of violence against women and girls. But here, sadly, everything that we have learned about the film’s characters thus far leaves us with the uneasy feeling that this final act of brutality will be swept under the rug and go unreported.
The inner tensions and psychological complexities of the characters are exceptionally portrayed and never overindulged, resulting in a poignant and morally complex drama. Another standout feature of the film is the camerawork from award-winning cinematographer Iván Gierasinchuk, whose agitated, mobile handheld shots expertly capture and convey the subjective instability of the two main characters, while the almost constant use of closeup shots both evokes the oppressive humidity of summer and reflects the absence of a broader objective perspective in this gathering of sleepwalkers.
When viewed with a macro lens, perhaps Hernández suggests Argentina is a patriarchal family unable to see the horrors inflicted on women and the most vulnerable within its midst.
Watch: Karoline Pelikan of Cine Latino and LAB interviews Paula Hernández, director of The Sleepwalkers. Interview translated by Matt Dunnett.