Argentinian writer Daniel Mantovani has just won the Nobel Prize for Literature. He is at the height of his career. He gets invited to countless of conferences and readings, hobnobs with ministers and ambassadors, and lives in a majestic Barcelona villa with a library the size one would expect to see in a Borges’s short story. But something is wrong. He has not been able to write for five years, and the Nobel Prize might have confirmed his greatest fear: turning into the sort of writer whose works coincide with the taste of the establishment he so deeply scorns. But what is it that a writer should try to achieve? What is his purpose, and what is it that moves him to write in the first place?
It is upon these questions that Gastón Duprat and Mariano Cohn build El Ciudadano Ilustre, a moving and thought-provoking tale of homecoming, art and belonging directed with a warm and smart touch that lingers long after the film’s ending credits.
It is, first and foremost, a brilliant character study. When the mayor of Salas, Mantovani’s Argentinian hometown, informs the Nobel laureate he intends to award him the medal for Distinguished Citizen, Mantovani returns to the tiny village he had fled thirty years before and embarks on a Wild Strawberries-like journey that will shatter his aloofness and makes him confront old memories and past loves.
Salas is a tiny rural village, most of whose inhabitants have never read any of Mantovani’s books and yet follow him around the village as if he were a rock star. The mayor himself insists that Mantovani is to be paraded around the city on top of a fire-brigade truck, standing next to the local teenage beauty queen, and the city council puts together a power-point presentation to hail the writer as the nation’s new hero. They are all wonderfully written and superbly funny moments, but they only stagger what remains, at its core, a deeply nostalgic tale.
There is a memorable scene in which Mantovani gives a quick interview for Salas’ local TV channel, and when asked what his job entails he claims a writer is someone who is not satisfied with the way the world is, and wants to add something to it. He, however, has never been able to write about anything other than Salas. Life in Europe did not provide him with the inspiration he was after, and all his tales have been set in the village he ran away from. In the end, the story of his comeback will turn into a novel itself. Duprat and Cohn skilfully structure El Ciudadano Ilustre into five chapters, so that the film looks like the book it ends up inspiring. But when a journalist presses him to reveal whether the book is based on true events, Mantovani bitterly replies asking whether the question matters at all. Does it make any difference whether what one writes is based on reality, or figments of one’s imagination?
All throughout his staying in Salas Mantovani’s fellow citizens ask him the same question, and pressure him to confirm the names of the places and people he got his inspiration from. He keeps reminding everyone that his work is pure fiction, but nobody wants to believe that. To the eyes of Salas’ inhabitants, Mantovani’s writing serves a specific function. If for the Nobel laureate writing adds something to a world that does not live up to one’s expectations, for his fellow citizens it is a way to grant immortality to Salas and its people.
This is what makes El Ciudadano Ilustre a truly remarkable work. Duprat and Cohn’s latest work debunks the act of writing by offering different and at times conflicting takes on its purpose. It is profound and intriguing, intellectually rich and yet written and directed in a way that seamlessly shifts from moments of surreal humour to heart-breaking scenes where Mantovani tries, and fails, to re-establish a degree of connection with the town he escaped. El Ciudadano Ilustre is one of this year’s Venice Film Festival greatest surprises – hopefully the jury will award the Argentinian duo the accolades they deserve.