There is a barbed observation made about Americans, that in other countries you may be asked Who are you? For Americans, it’s What do you do for a job? What line of work are you in? The roots of this are found in the Protestant work ethic, something that Max Weber captured so well in his book, “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.” The other side of this is what theologians call “vocation” and Maslow called “self-actualization” and that’s now been quoted in self-help books, bumper stickers and business seminars for what seems to be for-ev-er, the Harvey MacKay quote: “Find something you love to do, and you’ll never have to work a day in your life.” In Daniel Ró’s newest film, The Watercolorist (el Acuarelista), we see a story of a man who is doing something that he might love to do but is definitely compelled to do: watercolors. Under the delicate touch of Ró’s storytelling, we see just how dangerous and wondrous this can be, especially when the bright and shining 9-to-5 parameters of an occupation cease to shine when other people get involved.
Not every movie has tone. The Watercolortist is not one of those movies. The opening sequence soaks in mystery and whimsy, replete with scoring fit for an opened jewelry box or even a spinning carousel, the circadian rhythms of piano and xylophone tones convey something ethereal. So, too, the sleepy and darkly beautiful art supply shop harboring more than just paints and brushes but a shopkeeper speaking about artists in a way one would imagine a retired angel musing about the mysteries of certain mortals.
It is here that the artist played by Peruvian actor Miguel Iza and bearing stunning resemblance to American actor Christian Camargo, wanders in. This sets in motion a small gift to the audience, for we watch the rest of the movie seeded with anticipation of something beyond the knowledge of angels or ancient men who work in art shops to happen. Never before have the perils of watercolor painting been so dutifully treated. At the same time, what transpires seems to overwhelm the art.
The artist finds himself in a new apartment building where he can focus on his art. And just like John-Paul Sarte discovered, “Hell is other people.” Interruptions, manipulations, intrusions—all threaten the livelihood of the artist. But folded into these scenes are carefully woven arguments, symbols and wit that swell with meaning over time.
Early on, there is a meeting of all the tenants over the subject of renovating the building.
“The renovations won’t determine who we are, only the way we live,” explains one tenet.
“The way we live determines how we are,” says another, follow by a “And who we are.”
The rebuttal follows: “I’m not sure who I am, but I know how I want to live, and those renovations aren’t in my plans.”
Chaos ensues with shouts of “In ‘your’ plans!”
The artist, hovering outside the door, overhears everything and retreats back to his apartment, for however hostile the people on the other side of the door were, the subject matter of architecture and its role in our lives is even more so. Everywhere in The Watercolortist are nooks and signposts of larger discussions. And then there is the art.
Oils and pastels, charcoal and sculpture—these are all media that are somewhat forgiving of error. Not so with watercolor. Thankfully, we get to see over and over the precision and deft touch needed to achieve such mastery (created in real life by Peruvian artist Carlos Zamora). It’s especially telling the first painting by the artist that we are allowed to see: a depiction of filing cabinets. Some open, some closed, all worth repetitive long looks because this is the magic of art, that it can take something as quotidian and arguably as ugly as filing cabinets and make of them something worthy of a frame and a wall. Just how far this transformative magic goes finds as its theater the rest of the film.
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