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Desert, The
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by Jay Seaver

"If you were the last man on Earth... Well, it would be less complicated."
3 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2014 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: There's a lot to like about Christoph Behl's post-apocalyptic love triangle, and the fact that it can be described as such without coming across as an annoying genre mismatch is just the start. It's a neat little entry into the canon of small stories that take place during the end of the world, albeit one that sacrifices most of the immediate physical damage to do it.

As far as they can tell - and in any real sense that matters - Axel (Lautaro Delgado) and Jonathan (William Prociuk) may be the last two men on Earth, with Ana (Victoria Almeida) the last woman. They've converted a house into a fortress and come up with rules to ensure their survival as well as (hopefully) their sanity, but it's no surprise that they're starting to reach their breaking point. Maybe it could have gone on indefinitely when it was just Axel and Jonathan, but adding Ana makes it a situation that is never going to go smoothly, even if things didn't wind up with Ana and Jonathan together and Axel burning with desire.

The cast is terrific in a situation where one not playing up to the standards set by the other two could have sunk the whole enterprise, or at least reduced it to something much less interesting. Behl makes the somewhat unusual choice of not having Axel's obsession bleed into envy, which makes the scenes with just Delgado and Prociuk a little more unpredictable. There's a sense of them being perfectly complimentary, with Axel's intensity a bit unnerving but Prociuk getting a certain amount of the same effect by portraying Jonathan as kind of laid-back - not the kind that gets people killed through inattention, but right on the border of detachment, a distinction that is not easy to see immediately.

If they're playing opposites, Victoria Almeida plays Ana as trying to hold the center, and she's on the great side. She gives off a "one of the boys " vibe in the early going but sheds it easily as the focus moves to other things, although there's never reason to doubt her capability as the film goes on. Almeida is the one who gets the most out of the videotaped confessionals that are integrated into the film, giving the audience an unfiltered look at her as she moved between sentimentality, nervousness, and fury, though they come out just as well when she is paired with either or both of the men.

That confessional element is a crutch in a lot of movies, and it starts out that way in The Desert, but Behl finds a way to not only integrate it into the story but quietly show how civilization consumes itself, especially during the fall. A bit of clever structuring and editing in the last act makes the movie something close to heartbreaking at times, and the design of the world is clever and informative, from how the group has the outside of their building wired for sound to the name Ana gives the zombies she kills. There are flies everywhere and they're unnerving, both the ones buzzing around the house and the ones tattooed on Axel's skin.

And yet... The movie doesn't quite run out of steam, but it does bump up against its barriers on occasion. Behl and company don't seem to have the resources to depict a post-apocalyptic world outside of the house, and it often comes across as limited rather than claustrophobic. It's also the sort of movie where identifying any particular scene that needs to go or be tightened is difficult, but where the cumulative effect of not a whole lot happening starts to wear on the viewer, and the particular wheel-spinning that goes on after a big change midway through is going to rub some folks the wrong way. I felt a little more fidgety than I really should have coming out of it, even if I liked most of what it was doing.

The filmmakers are doing a lot of good work at a fairly small scale, and you can argue that this sort of focusing on a small group and amplifying their interactions is what the zombie subgenre does the best. Bits of "The Desert" are sticking with me better than anything from bigger, more "complete" movies, and I get the feeling that fans of Christoph Behl and Victoria Almeida may be looking it up years from now after they have some high-profile success.

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originally posted: 09/17/14 09:06:23
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 SXSW Film Festival For more in the 2014 South by Southwest Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2014 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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  DVD: 25-Aug-2014


Directed by
  Christoph Behl

Written by
  Christoph Behl

  Victoria Almeida
  William Prociuk
  Lautaro Delgado

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