By J. Hoberman
As with his previous films, Argentine director Lisandro Alonso's Liverpool is defined by its trajectory: A taciturn isolato—here, a merchant sailor named Farrel—travels to the ends of the Earth: in this case, his desolate Tierra del Fuego hometown. Liverpool opens with a big blast of neo surf, and coasts on that energy for the movie's 84 minutes, ending with a shot of corresponding impact.
Before his freighter navigates Cape Horn, Farrel gets permission to take shore leave, explaining (in the movie's talkiest scene) that he wants to find out if his mother is still alive. Then he packs his duffel, goes ashore, eats in a dive wallpapered with an incongruously verdant landscape, visits a lonely strip club, hitches a ride on a flatbed truck, jumps off in the middle of nowhere, and crosses a snowy field to a rudimentary settlement, where, after dining in the ultimate no-frills cantina, he spies on a house that might once have been his own, gets drunk, and passes out. This not-so-excellent adventure is captured, mainly using available light, mostly in middle shot. The takes are long, and real-time is frequent. Alonso's brand of minimalism is funky, uninflected, and given to moments of unexpected beauty, as when Farrel first goes up on deck. The tone ranges between withholding and enigmatic. Landscape trumps character, although the human heart is the central mystery; the emphasis is on the moment, but formalism rules.
Alonso has stylistic affinities with an international group of youngish Festival directors—Albert Serra, Pedro Costa, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and Fred Kelemen are the best known—who might be called exponents of New Realism or the New Depressives. Each, though, has his own personal interests. Alonso's—as explicated in his three previous movies: La Libertad (2001), Los Muertos (2004), and Fantasma (2006)—involve the riddle of everyday activities and the impossibility of relationships. Farrel awakes to hear some crusty local, old enough to be his father, wondering just what he's doing here in the back of beyond: "Nobody knows you now—why did you come back?" Farrel's ancient, bedridden mother neither recognizes nor remembers him; in the closest thing to making a connection, he is solicited by a woman in the household young enough to be his daughter.
Before heading back over the snow (to his freighter, to his death?), Farrel gifts the apparently simple-minded girl with some money and a cheap souvenir keychain purchased in a foreign port. In the last (key) shot, she's seen curiously fingering this trinket in the same way you might, after watching Liverpool, ponder the visceral experience that has been lodged in your consciousness like a stone.