MIFF REVIEW: Aurora (2021)

aurora_posterWhat could have been a noisy melodrama is instead a thoughtful, warm, and pleasant slice of life in Paz Fábrega’s Aurora – the third narrative feature from the talented Costa-Rican filmmaker.

Professional architect and part-time art teacher Luisa (Rebecca Woodbridge) finds a student’s older sister in the bathroom, having unsuccessfully tried to induce an abortion. When 17-year-old Yuliana (Raquel Villalobos) insists that her mother cannot be told about her pregnancy, Luisa takes on a growing supporting role that evolves into an ambiguous but powerful bond between them.

The narrative immediately suggests high drama: teen pregnancy most often seems like grist for soap operas, and when one adds in the fact that abortion is illegal in Costa Rica in almost all cases – including in cases of rape and incest – there is a strong recipe for passionate political comment and over-the-top histrionics. Fábrega masterfully pushes Aurora down a path of the personal rather than the political. It does not avoid mentioning the issues, the laws, or the ongoing debate, but as a film it feels less focused on moral debate than human experience. Yuliana tries to self-terminate her pregnancy but fails because she is much further along the process than she believed. In Aurora, then, she faces a choice of raising her old child or giving it up for adoption. She hides her condition from her mother because she is afraid of the confrontation, but it is obvious that such deception cannot last the full term.

Throughout this process, she comes to rely heavily on Luisa’s assistance. She is a middle-aged childless architect, who teaches children art on the side and has been instructing Juliana’s younger brother. She comes to host Juliana in her apartment, and gives her loose-fitting clothes to conceal the pregnancy, and even accompanies her on the sorts of consultations and tests to which Juliana’s mother should be going. This support appears to be assistance, but often seems to border on interference instead. Luisa’s precise motivations in helping Juliana feel powerfully ambiguous. In many ways they drive the film.

Fábrega’s presentation of this story is low-key and gentle. It avoids loud argument and upset in favour of much more subtle and meaningful exchanges. Behaviours are represented but not explained or justified. The parts of the conversation left in silence feel as meaningful as the dialogue, and what is expressed leaves plenty of negative space for what is not. The entire presentation feels realistic in the best possible sense; there is almost an entire lack of non-diegetic sound. There is no opportunity to emotionally manage the audience through the score, as there is simple the everyday sounds of urban life.

The use of non-professional actors provides even further realism and emotional space. Nobody feels contrived or shoe-horned into particular directions. Both Woodbridge and Villalobos are hugely effective in their lead roles, but it is Erika Rojas that particularly stands out as Juliana’s mother. Every character choice defies the stereotype, and her subtle performance creates a wonderfully realistic effect.

Aurora is proof that good cinema does not have to be big or loudly emotive. It does not have to showcase life in-extremis. In the hands of strong writing and direction, and honest performances, it can capture enormous prufundity in small, minimal ways. It is excellent, wonderfully effective stuff.

Aurora is screening at the 2021 Melbourne International Film Festival on 6 and 8 August 2021 (assuming Melbourne is not in lockdown). It is also available to rent online across Australia from 14 August via MIFF Play. In both cases, tickets are limited.

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