In early 2009, I spent a solid month at the Portland International Film Festival. I saw thirty films in just over three weeks, all at one of the same three movie theaters. My city has a great IFF. I kept a running tally of my favorite films, most of which included things I never would have been exposed to had I stuck to regular movie theaters – even the arthouses – during the same one month period. A few that still stand out are Bosnian director Aida Begic’s Snow, Czech director Bohdan Slama’s The Country Teacher, Austrian Gotz Spielmann’s Revanche and Mexican Fernando Eimbcke’s Lake Tahoe. I left the latter in tears (Begic’s Snow was the only other film to have the same effect) and it’s been on my mind since, though I’ve hesitated to return to it for fear that my hugely bittersweet recollection of the experience of watching it will somehow lose rank in my memory canon.

Now I’ve watched it again, with six years more crucial life experience to bring to my judgment of it. I can say that I still think it’s a magnificent movie, made with two of the best weapons a good director can have in his or her arsenal, compassion and stylistic control, though its emotional impact has faded somewhat. But I think that has more to do with the mid-story reveal, which this time around was no longer the surprise it was intended to be, than it does with any kind of waning of the film’s real power. I still believed in the main character’s pain and that it would have led him to do everything he does over the course of the film’s single day.

This is a small movie of subtle emotional cues that is simultaneously a comedy, a rarely-attempted combination that is pulled off almost never. There may, in fact, be something alchemic about the mix – wry comedy with deep pathos – that only works at full strength the first time around, and thereafter has to be viewed for the technical prowess with which the emotion is conveyed.

Lake Tahoe’s technical side can hardly be missed. It’s one of those Tsai Ming-Liang/Aki Kaurismaki-indebted films where the camera rarely moves and many small, shuffling, quotidian actions are carried out within the constrictive confines of the frame. You can’t miss how deliberately the story is carried along, how infrequently Eimbcke cuts, or that when he does, it’s for an effect that is simultaneously funny and moving.

The story follows Juan (Diego Cataño) in his search for a replacement part for his car’s engine. In the opening shot – actually just off-screen – Juan crashes his family’s tiny auto into a telephone pole, after which point it stubbornly refuses to start. He walks determinedly from the outskirts of his Yucatán town (through some minor detective work – a Google search of some characteristics of Juan’s license plate, which can be seen in a few shots – I was able to determine that this movie takes place in the seaside town of Progreso) into the heart of it and knocks on the front door of every auto mechanic he can find. He’s eventually forced to barge through the gate of his last hope, a tiny auto shop run by a foggy-brained old man (Hector Herrera) who mistakes him for a would-be burglar and attempts to call la policia. But the old man can’t find his phone book, and so instead he offers a deal: he’ll find the engine part and hand it over for a bargain in exchange for Juan walking his dog. Juan reluctantly agrees, which leads him directly into the second minor disaster of a day that promises to be full of them.

Eimbcke’s earlier film, Duck Season, about two pre-adolescent boys making a go of it after being left on their own in an apartment for a day, is the kind of comedy that maintains momentum by ratcheting up the trouble into which it can sink its protagonists. Lake Tahoe begins similarly, and Eimbcke may have made another comedy as genuinely warm and funny as Duck Season if Juan’s day had continued to spiral into worse and worse predicaments. But Eimbcke had more in mind for his second feature. And with it he proved he also has the emotional register to carry his ambition through. There’s no need to reveal exactly what Eimbcke, or for that matter Juan, had in mind. Let’s just say that for anyone who’s ever lost someone, Lake Tahoe may become something like a very close friend.

It’s not precisely true to say that Lake Tahoe is “underrated”. It has an 86% on Rotten Tomatoes, but from only six real critics, followed by a handful of sublimely opinionated bloggers. Which means that when people can see Lake Tahoe, they see its quality. But the film isn’t even listed on Box Office Mojo, which means that aside from a few small city festivals, it never got a shot at a wide American audience. To me that’s as good a qualification for something being “underrated” as anything: give people a chance to see a work of art, and they’ll grade it highly. Deny them that, and the artwork will be about as underappreciated as it comes. Thankfully there’s the terrific Film Movement DVD series, without which Lake Tahoe would have had to live gloriously on in my memory, instead of popping back up to move me all over again.

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