Oscar and Tamara leave the big city to settle into a small home in the country. It is an attempt by Oscar to rebuild their broken relationship after the death of his wife and her mother. Not long after they have moved in Tamara’s behavior becomes erratic and snappy. She often disappears into the nearby woods and begins talking of a local legend called Xuthej. Dismissing her behavior as a result of their already strained relationship Oscar grows steadily frustrated as his attempts at resolution are met with further indifference and eventually hostility. Is Tamara acting out her wild imagination, or is something in the woods coming for them?
To understand Relicto is to understand how it came about. Argentine filmmaker Laura Sanchez Acosta’s first film (and part of her graduate thesis), Relicto A Mesopotamic Story is a trio of lover letters. One is written for one of Acosta’s favorite authors, Horacio Quiroga, a native Uruguayos who lived in Argentina until 1937. Another letter is written to Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, co-directors of The Blair Witch Project. The final letter is written to the Danish filmmakers in the film collective, Dogme 95 and their Vow of Chastity.
From Quiroga Acosta she developed her central theme and story structure. From Myrick and Sanchez she developed her approach to directing her cast. Finally, from Dogme 95 she developed her approach to filming Relicto.
In The Blair Witch Project Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez controlled the narrative by choosing which character had what information from their script. In a similar fashion Sanchez Acosta controlled her narrative as well. But first, she worked with her small cast in a series of improv rehearsals, establishing the back stories for every character, even the family therapist who we only hear over the phone, for an impressive eight months leading up to the shoot. So when Oscar struggles and is frustrated in his efforts to rebuild his relationship with Tamara it feels real. Though there were points where we asked, “When is he going to snap?” As well, Tamara’s indifference and growing hostility to her father’s reluctance to believe Xuthej is responsible for all the strange goings on at the country home are palpable.
Having established her characters and how they would react to any situation her ‘family’ experiences she then dropped them into a comforting environment that becomes increasingly surreal throughout the film. Some of her cast even entered into the the filming believing that they were still shooting a family drama, not a supernatural horror. At heightened moments in the story she would decline to give a member of her cast the heads up, just to capture a more authentic reaction to these supernatural incidents. It was a daring move that could have gone south on her.
Uruguayos author Horacio Quiroga is a local hero to Acosta though he inhabited this Earth in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. That is hot on the heels of Edgar Allen Poe, and around at the same time as famed writers HP Lovecraft and MR James (the three of them – Quiroga, Lovecraft and James – had all passed away within a year of each other). Though never recognized as much as those other authors for his contribution to supernatural authorship, a Gothic and Romantic style, he could be included in the same conversation as those other authors were he more internationally recognized. Horacio Quiroga had something in his writings which he called ‘The Effect Ending’, that the structure of his stories started slow but built up to a big finish. Acosta employs this into her narrative structure, so Relicto has this slow burn of uncertainty and mystery which will build to almost certain doom for everyone at the end.
Dogme 95 influenced Acosta in how she shot her film. Following some points of the collective’s Vow of Chastity she shot her film handheld, in natural light without optical work and filters, and on location. There are some things from the VoC that she did not adhere to; Dogme95s original VoC did not approve of genre films for one. However, we are speaking of influences only and what has Dogme95 done for me lately? Showing her appreciation of their approach to filmmaking does have its drawbacks though as some of the scenes in the woods are shot at dusk and without special lighting, so some things are hard to pick out.
So, knowing all that has influenced Acosta and her approach to making, what is the end result? Subjectively, Relicto was more creepy than scary. Believe though when we say that Relicto is fully capable of getting under your skin, especially with some of the natural imagery Acosta chooses to use in the segues. It is icky fuel to your entomophobia. This reviewer feels compelled to say that Relicto is more of an experimental mystery than an outright horror flick.
The film inhabits a world where the the unknown, the unseen and external threat, linger in the woods. The story about respecting the varying beliefs between urban and rural settings is a familiar one, used often enough in the genres that we are already preparing ourselves for the bad turn. Because Acosta is waiting to employ Quiroga’s ‘The Effect Ending’ she uses her time to twist the screws of tension and terror.
Relicto is not only a graduate project but a deeply personal project as well. Equally important was that it was one that would allow Acosta as much creative control as possible to pay homage to some of her personal cinematic and cultural influencers. Rather than try to impress her peers by making a film showing that she is capable of handling any scale of a commercially viable project she went experimental and personal first.
It shows that she is a well versed student of genre film tropes and narrative history. Her handling of theme and atmosphere are great. It will be interesting to see what having stricter control over the emotional output of her cast in future projects yields in their performances. She relied on her cast to respond to events that she and her crew created this first time around so she worked with what her cast gave her. We are excited to see what she can do with the more traditional approach to filmmaking.
Laura is working on a more straight up horror short film now, funding her project by way of a prize won through Blood Window’s co-production programs out of her native Argentina. She has told us that her this project will be another ‘love letter’ to a well known and beloved genre director, hoping afterwards to follow up with a feature film version of that short, what she called the ‘marriage proposal’.