Anahí Berneri’s A Year Without Love won the Teddy Award for best queer fiction feature at last year’s Berlin Film Festival. The young Argentine’s debut feature is set in 1996 and shares the low budget but keenly felt intensity characteristic of the New Queer Cinema movement of the early ’90s. But her use of gritty Super-16 cinematography gives the film the grainy and muted look of many a Fassbinder film from the ’70s and, like the German master’s work, it brings a certain rigour to the proceedings.
Screening Fri, Apr 28 at Cinematheque as part of the spotlight New Argentine Cinema (A Sequel), A Year Without Love is an unflinching character study of a young HIV-positive Buenos Aires intellectual (a svelte and sympathetic Juan Minujín) and his hunt for love, lust and a publishing contract while besieged by loneliness, waning CD4 counts and a hacking cough. Inhabiting a drab apartment with his aunt and supported by an imposing, emotionallydistant father, Pablo Pérez’s life is entirely governed by routine: visits to the hospital, tests and pills, leather-jacketed jaunts to porn theatres, dance and sex clubs, reluctant shifts as a French tutor and stints typing personal ads and composing the diary that the film is based on (the real Pérez is coscreenwriter).
In this elliptical yet contemplative and humane film, the passing of time is marked by the seasonally themed cover boys on porn magazines. Shot with an incisive handheld camera, Berneri excels at capturing gestures in extreme close-up, lavishing voyeuristic attention on Pablo’s computer monitor, his medical records, injections and drugs — initially reluctant to take AZT, he eventually describes its aesthetic beauties in fetishistic detail, provocatively dubbing it the “work of art of the ’90s” — as well as his acts of submission as he begins exploring his fascination with leather. (In just one of many suggestive juxtapositions, Berneri cuts from Pablo’s first whipping to a photograph of him as a child as he recounts his passion for kink being sparked by the tight outfits of wrestlers and superheroes.)
Pablo’s embracing of HIV treatment is mirrored by his infiltration of the SM subculture (where he falls for a top named Martín), his scenes of slavery represented in surprisingly candid — if shadowy — detail. Gaunt, dark and alluring, Pablo’s face is in close-up through much of the film and a scene of him in a cot under the harsh hospital lights, his brow deeply furrowed with trepidation as he is fed into a CAT scan, shows Berneri’s insight and empathy for her protagonist. Nothing is romanticized here, a point driven home by her tendency to cut from rapturous sex to banal details like dirty dishes (most comically, she bridges from Pablo fucking a trick to a shot of freshly sharpened pencils).
While the diary format sometimes bogs the film down by literally spelling everything out for you, A Year Without Love has enough thoughtful and even glorious moments to be well worth a peek.