ROCK, PAPER AND SCISSORS Review- Three Siblings in a Madhouse
Starring Agustina Cerviño, Pablo Sigal, Valeria Giorcelli
Directed by Maria José Blousson and Macarena García Lenzi
Rock, Paper and Scissors, despite unfortunately sharing a similar title to a few other films that have been released recently, is a very solid effort out of Argentina that deals with isolation, fantasy, family drama, violence, and the worlds we make inside our homes and inside our heads.
Directed by and Macarena García Lenzi from a script they co-wrote with Julieta Garcia Lenzi, the movie concerns Jesus (Pablo Sigal) and Maria José (Valeria Giorcelli), two siblings who spend all of their time in their house, watching The Wizard of Oz on a nightly basis. They also work on a surreal movie that Jesus directs in which Maria José is the star, and only actress, except for a pet guinea pig. The siblings are very close. Perhaps a bit too close.
Their father recently died, so their half-sister Magdalena (Agustina Cerviño) flies in from Spain so that she can help settle the family’s affairs. Magdalena, obviously familiar with her siblings’, uh, eccentricities, decides to stay at the house for one night before looking for a hotel room to stay in for the rest of the two weeks she’s in town. Turns out that staying over even that one night was a mistake, considering that the next morning she mysteriously either falls or gets pushed down a flight of marble steps and becomes horribly injured. Instead of taking her to the hospital, Maria José decides that the best thing to do is to nurse her to health. So Magdalena gets to spend her two week trip lying in her dead father’s bed, at the mercy of her potentially psychotic siblings.
The film is spiritually similar to the novels (and the movies based on them) Les Enfants Terribles and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, which take place inside multi-generation family houses and concern siblings who become almost totally disconnected from the world outside, and instead become lost in their fantasies, and each other. The fact that Jesus and Maria José at first barely recognize their own half sister is a testament to their self-created insularity.
Rock, Paper, and Scissors turns the perceptual tables on the audience several times, keeping us guessing as to which sibling is more psychotic, and which one is the bigger influence on the other. Of course, both siblings are insane in their own way, and each manipulates the other differently. Even Magdalena’s fall down the stairs is shot in such an ambiguous way that you can’t really tell which sibling pushed her, or if she stumbled down the stairs on her own. (She doesn’t, but there’s at least the seed of doubt planted in the audience’s mind.) The nature of the fall creates a plausible deniability for the siblings, enough so that Magdalena believes, at different times, that the other sibling pushed her, depending largely on who’s talking to her at the time. This kind of ambiguity is definitely one of the film’s more intriguing elements.
The film is also meta commentary on film and filmmaking, which is something that I’m not always very interested in, but since this wasn’t the movie’s singular focus, it doesn’t really become overwhelming. Jesus uses an old mini-DV kind of camcorder to make his movie even though Rock, Paper and Scissors takes place more or less in the present day. Judging by Jesus’ age, he probably had the camera when he was a child. Like so many other things about the siblings, time, and along with it their growth, seems to have suddenly stopped at some point.
His film is primitive, terrible, and absurd. The special effects basically amount to bad cutout animation. But to Jesus and Maria José, it’s a masterpiece. It’s kind of their interpretation of The Wizard of Oz, filtered through the minds of two insane narcissists. Jesus edits this movie in the dark dungeon that is the family basement, his own little hovel where there’s nothing to distract from his fantasies. The light of the computer screen the only thing that fills his vision.
It’s an all-absorbing project, and nearly everything in the house is used as an actor or a prop. Eventually, Magdalena’s suffering becomes material for the movie. Jesus points his camera at her and her image is edited into the larger film, blending documentary with fiction, until the two are indistinguishable. It’s a commentary on film, sure, but also on the fluidity of fantasy and reality in the home, where most of us are surrounded by media while we’re literally walled off from the real world outside.
Agustina Cerviño is brilliant in her performance as Magdalena, the half-sister who suddenly finds herself bedridden and at the mercy of her two psychotic siblings. Her face becomes progressively more tired and stressed and completely on edge as the film goes on, and she conveys several levels of agony at any time. Her screams are so full of pain, you feel claustrophobic, trapped in that bed and that little room with her. And it’s the hopelessness that Cerviño conveys that really breaks your heart, because after a while you realize that there isn’t a second of the movie where Magdalena even approaches happiness.
While Cerviño’s performance is probably the film’s best, the other two actors are also great. Valeria Giorcelli’s performance has subtlety and nuance, and Pablo Sigal is just as compelling at being off-putting. The fact that these three people are the entirety of the cast makes their efforts even more impressive. There are literally no other on screen characters, but that was more than enough to keep me interested.
At less than 90 minutes, the pacing is actually a little rushed. This is the kind of film that requires a bit of breathing room. We need to soak in the atmosphere a little more. We’re in and out of this crazy world a little too quickly, with an ending that, as good as it is, felt like the filmmakers just wanted to get things over with. This is a good story, but its pace keeps it from being as creepy as it could be. The characters are a bit less than fully formed at times, and the script does lean a into caricature a little too much. But these things are really just minor quibbles. Rock, Paper, and Scissors is a fun watch that explores themes that have been done better, but never in quite the same way. It’s not exactly a must-see, but it comes pretty close.
Although the themes have been explored before, this claustrophobic tale of psychotic siblings who live in a closed-off fantasy world of their own making is definitely worth checking out.