Reviewed by: Rebecca Naughten

"A suspenseful and jittery depiction of how fear can nestle in the place where you should feel safest."

A suspenseful and jittery depiction of how fear can nestle in the place where you should feel safest, Refugiado follows Laura (Julieta Díaz) and her seven-year-old son Matías (Sebastián Molinaro) as they flee the family home after an incidence of domestic violence leaves Laura badly beaten. Matías discovers his mother bleeding and unconscious on her bedroom floor when he returns home from a birthday party.

The emergency services act swiftly, placing them in a women's refuge the same night. Once Matías gets over the indignity of having wet the bed, he quickly makes friends with other women staying there and a little girl, Ana (played by Valentina García Guerrero, who almost walks away with the film). The innocence of their play - a game of tag and scaring each other during hide and seek in what is a spooky building - slowly reveals what they've witnessed as they start to mimic the insults and threats they've heard in their respective homes ("Bitch!" "Slut!" "Brat!"). However, the process is more difficult for Laura who finds giving recorded testimony of her ordeal traumatic and is generally in a shaky emotional state because she is 11-weeks pregnant.

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The refuge is built like a prison - bars on the windows, high walls, locked gates, with people only arriving or leaving under escort at night - and the institutional feel to the place suggests that the occupants are the people being punished rather than their aggressors. Likewise, the way the camera prowls around the building at night has the hallmarks of a horror film set up - for all the security, it does not feel like a safe place. It isn't surprising then that Laura takes the opportunity of a trip to the court to acquire a restraining order to flee with Matías and to try to find somewhere safe on her own. But even with a supportive network of women - her colleagues at work pool their resources to give her some money - this proves easier said than done (her husband, who is never seen but is nonetheless omnipresent, has already threatened one of her friends).

After they leave the women's refuge, the film falls somewhere between a road movie and a thriller. In the sequences where Laura and Matías cautiously make their way around the streets of Buenos Aires - with Laura increasingly fearful that her husband will find them - director Diego Lerman uses a handheld camera to mirror Laura's unsteadiness and create a generally off-kilter ambience. A sequence in which they return to the family home to collect some belongings is a masterclass in suspense and ratcheting up the tension, the camera keeping their faces in close up - capturing their fear but also suggestive of their limited options - as one thing after another looks set to trap them. Likewise seemingly innocuous objects - a bouquet of flowers and a mobile phone - take on new meaning and sinister significance when viewed through Laura's scared eyes.

The mobile phone constantly rings - a sustained and wearying threat in their midst - allowing Laura's husband to persist in hounding them wherever they go, and suggesting that Laura will have difficulty leaving her troubles behind and that some bonds are difficult to break. That each of them at some point answers the phone to talk to him highlights the complexity of their relationships with a man they both fear and love.

The film rests on the relationship between mother and son as they share nearly all screen time. Díaz and Molinaro create a believable bond - the irritations and the tendernesses - of two people who only have each other to rely on. Molinaro gives a naturalistic and unshowy performance as a child who has seen more than he should, but doesn't understand all of it ("If you love her, why do you hit her?", he asks his father over the phone), and Díaz does an admirable job as the woman trying to keep body and soul together for long enough to find a safe haven for her and her child.

Reviewed on: 11 Nov 2014
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After a young boy finds his mother unconscious on the floor, they decide to flee their abusive home life and embark on a terrifying journey.

Director: Diego Lerman

Writer: Diego Lerman, María Meira

Starring: Julieta Díaz, Sebastián Molinaro, Marta Lubos, Valentina García Guerrero, Silvia Bayle, Sofía Palomino, Sandra Villani, Paula Ituriza, Carlos Weber

Year: 2014

Runtime: 95 minutes

Country: Argentina, France, Germany


Cannes 2014
SSFF 2014

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