LA VERÓNICA (MIFF 2021) – Review by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

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Best known as the title character Ema from Pablo Larrain’s 2019 film of the same name, Mariana Di Girólamo is back, quite literally front and centre, of another Chilean tale of a complex, flawed young woman trying to navigate her way through the jungle of contemporary life with only her own personal strengths and weaknesses to guide her. The two films, on paper at least, almost feel like a conscious diptych with Di Girólamo at the heart of each. Again in the eponymous role in La Verónica, she plays an undisguised messed up and selfish young woman who throws herself body and soul into getting what she wants, while lacking the emotional maturity – and, perhaps, necessary mental health – to do so in a healthy way. But while Ema is largely non-judgemental despite the undeniable errors of judgement and morality its protagonist makes, Verónica is cast in less of a compassionate light. And yet, there is nothing of the “all women are like this” suggestion that could so lead so easily for both films to collapse into misogyny; rather, largely through the commanding and nuanced performance of Di Girólamo herself, what we have in both instances is instead two extraordinary portraits of two extraordinary women, albeit far from idealized visions of womanhood in either case.

Which, to be honest, comes as something of a relief. It’s a can of worms perhaps, but oh how I tire of seeing the weight of Positive Representation™ cast at the feet of women characters and actors time and time and time again. At a mere thirty years of age, based on these two films alone Di Girólamo must surely be considered one of the most exciting and daring women working on screen today, not just busting out fearless, no-holds-barred performances, but selecting roles that are far from the milquetoast assumption that all high-impact representations of women on screen must somehow have a didactic, moralistic imperative to show the gender at what is far to often reduced to a kind of milquetoast ideal.

Di Girólamo excels at playing broken women, and – like Ema – Verónica is a broken woman. The wife of a wealthy football player, she is a minor celebrity in Chile, aspiring to become a major one in her own right by becoming the ambassador for a popular make-up brand. To do so, she needs to get her Instagram followers up to the one million mark, and there’s not anything she won’t do to get there. Far from the public image she seeks to cultivate, however, the reality is much darker; her marriage is deteriorating due to her insecurities and self-sabotaging ideas regarding how to save it, she has failed to bond with her young baby, and, to make matters worse, the death of a baby she had before her current child many years earlier is the subject of a discrete police investigation.

Consisting of a series of separate yet narratively intertwined vignettes, in Leonardo Madel’s film (now playing the Melbourne International Film Festival) Verónica’s narcissism and her inability to see herself as anything but the center of the world is made literal in the film’s captivating, unrelenting formal gimmick. Di Girólamo is quite literally at the centre of every single shot of this film, with the action swirling around her while she remains quite literally centre stage. There’s a strong sense here that Gloria Swanson’s iconic “I’m ready for my close-up, Mr DeMille” from Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard has sparked the conceit (in all meanings of the word) of an entire film here. Verónica simply cannot conceive a world where she does not lie at the centre of things, where she is getting all the attention, and yet through Di Girólamo what results is much more than just vanity – we see anxiety, fear, anger, duplicity, ruthlessness, determination and, at times, perhaps most memorably, genuine fragility. La Verónica is a complex portrait of a complex woman, but with an actor of Di Girólamo’s remarkable talent behind the wheel it cannot fail to captivate.

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Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is a multi award-winning film critic from Melbourne, Australia. She was an editor at Senses of Cinema from 2015 to 2018, and is a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic for ABC Radio in Australia, She has written for Film International, Diabolique Magazine, Vulture, Overland, The Big Issue and her own website, The Blue Lenses. She has written eight books on cult, horror and exploitation cinema and co-edited collections on Elaine May, Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani, Peter Strickland, and Alice in Wonderland in film. She frequently contributes commentaries, liner notes and video essays to home entertainment releases from companies such as Arrow Video, Kino Lorber, Eureka Entertainment, Second Sight and Severin Films. She is a Research Fellow at RMIT University and an Adjunct Professor at Deakin University, and a member of the advisory board of the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies (LA, NYC, London).