The Desert ("El Desierto")
“One of the best of the year… an intimate, intense love story that will put a knot in your stomach” - Shelagh M. Rowan-Legg, TWITCH
Axel, Ana and Jonathan live together; a strange but tight-knit family surviving the apocalypse in a reinforced bunker they’ve turned into their home. Occasionally, they go out for supplies, careful not to get attacked by the unseen zombies roaming outside. However, it is a well-executed routine and the outside world might as well not exist: Ana loves Jonathan, or so she thinks, and Axel cannot help himself but lust for Ana, whom he obsesses over day in and day out. Together, they’ve set up a video confession booth where they commit their private thoughts and anxieties to tape, and it soon becomes a ritual, an anchor against the madness outside. There, Axel spends more time watching Ana’s confessions that recording his own. And one day, the boys bring in a zombie into the home — a harbinger of doom. Sure, all is fine at first: Ana calls it Pythagoras and it alternatively serves as punching bag or canvas. But with its arrival, the dynamic of the household starts shifting. Betrayals of trust become apparent and the three friends, now playing mind games on each other, start growing apart.
If we’ve seen our fair share of post-apocalyptic cinema, this latest South American addition to the genre is a stunning, suggestive huis-clos of unprecedented emotional charge. All in the details, THE DESERT is in turn erotic, melancholy, unsettling and sad; a wholly atmospheric and deftly observed study of three rich characters caught in a slow-burning and destructive love triangle. Never leaving the house, Behl manages to create a vast, suggestive world through a phenomenal attention to set design and the minute peculiar details that make Jonathan, Ana and Axel tick. The latter, for example, is in process of tattooing his entire body with flies, ever-mounting on him as the tensions increase. Ana’s obsession with naming the zombies she kills becomes something of her last grasp on humanity. Ultimately, these small character traits matter, as THE DESERT proves to be a film of bodies brushing against others, of fleeting suggestive glances, and of unspoken jealousy ever on the brink of boiling over. The titular desert of Behl’s film transcends geographical description and comes to describe a haunted household, and the penetrating emotional barrenness that drives this contemplative tragedy of longing. A reminder that there is still much to mine from the post-apocalyptic genre and a beautiful look at human impulses that are wholly inescapable, even at the end of the world.
— Ariel Esteban Cayer