'Citizen' Lacks Distinction

The Distinguished Citizen (El ciudadano ilustre)
(Argentina/Spain, 117 min.)
Dir. Mariano Cohn, Gastón Duprat; Writ. Andrés Duprat
Starring: Oscar Martínez, Dady Brieva, Andrea Frigerio, Belén Chavanne, Manuel Vicente, Nora Navas, Marcelo D'Andrea, Iván Steinhardt

The new Argentine “comedy” The Distinguished Citizen ironically lacks distinction. This unwieldy mess of a film backfires with its aim at black comedy and delivers some escapades that are frequently obnoxious and only intermittently funny. It’s an awfully mean-spirited quest for humanity.

The man searching for meaning is Argentine ex-pat Daniel Mantovani (Oscar Martínez) whose journey begins he wins the Nobel Prize for literature. The award recognizes Daniel’s successful and prolific career as an author writing bleak chronicles of human experience but even his acceptance speech at the ceremony is oddly caustic for such an honour. The prize brings all sorts of offers and publicity requests to his new abode in Spain, and he declines them all in a unilateral dismissal of the spotlight. However, a humble invitation from his small hometown of Salas, Argentina puts him on a trip home.

The people of Salas give Daniel the award of Distinguished Citizen and the town comes together to celebrate the one member of the community who made it big. Public appearances abound as Daniel takes some photos with the country bumpkins from his childhood. Everyone in The Distinguished Citizen is a buffoon or a yokel as Daniel’s uppity ways and European affectation clash with the people of his unrefined origins.

Fame comes at a price, however, as Daniel’s return dirt kicks into unhealed wounds. Daniel, as is the case with most writers, draws from his experiences. His life in Salas populates his literature and some of the townspeople remain bitter over the fact that he used lives for fiction and often in unflattering or critical terms.

The trip sours quickly, partly due to an icky affair with a friend’s daughter, as the distinguished citizen becomes a traitor, a pariah, and a leech in his hometown. Daniel’s homecoming lets the writer voice his frustration with the hypocrisy of small town living and his disdain for Salas’ conservatism, but the visit ultimately exposes Daniel’s own emptiness. He is a man of great words and little conviction, but even his knack for crafting lofty sentences proves uninspiring as the dwindling attendance for his guest workshops challenges the merit to his distinction. Daniel is nowhere near as good a man as he is a writer.

The film, which is Argentina’s submission for Best Foreign Language Film in this year’s Oscar race, and a bizarre choice at that, succumbs to its own mean-spiritedness as it careens towards a literal hunt against the author. Structured in a series of chapters, The Distinguished Citizen draws upon its literary character to develop its form, but for a film about the art of prose, the drama is forced and convoluted.

The Distinguished Citizen offers few reasons to care for Daniel, as he is little more than an asshole coasting on his accolades and perceived superiority. He’s an ostrich with his head in the ground rather than the savant observer a writer needs to be. The Distinguished Citizen recognises Daniel’s hypocrisy, but the film lets him off the hook far too easily as it opts to mock the villagers rather than take the hard road of critiquing its flawed hero. Too many vignettes, particularly involving an old friend (Dady Brieva) who cooks goat heads and dancers like a lunatic, look down upon the villagers as some kind of HeeHaw freak show. Mocking and deriding country folk as simpletons, and eventually portraying them as bloodthirsty rednecks, just isn’t funny or meaningful. Martínez, who won the Best Actor prize at the Venice Film Festival for this performance, plays Daniel’s high-faluting solipsism rather well, but the character is just so unlikable that he’s beyond redemption.