By Ben Winkley

In 1960, as the chill of the Cold War was beginning to be felt from Saigon to Stuttgart, the final details of the Second World War were still being worked out in South America. Wakolda, an Argentinian drama of great restraint and high intelligence, tells a fictionalised fragment of this distinct moment in history and over a taught 90 minutes manages to develop more original ideas about the morality of war than many a recent bloated Hollywood number.

In the beautiful, varied Patagonian landscape, a mysterious travelling doctor enters the life of a local family as they begin a new life as hoteliers. The father, hobbyist dollmaker Enzo, is wary of the stranger and protective of his kin, but his wife Eva likes the handsome man with who she can speak in German – a product of her education in this peculiarly Bavarian enclave of South America. And it’s good to have a physician around the place: Eva is pregnant, and her 12-year old daughter Lilith is underdeveloped for her age and so bullied at school by her heartless peers. The doc provides medicine, succour and hope for them all.

The intentions of the doctor’s attentions seem innocent at first, but become somewhat opaque as he inveigles his way into the family’s confidence. Something is off-kilter with the doc’s bedside manner – why is he so interested in the well-being of this family, particularly Lillith? What is the significance of the detailed notes and sketches he keeps about them all? He’s armed and jumpy and surrounded by a small coterie of seemingly awestruck, German-speaking hangers-on. A local photographer is staking him out. As backdrop in the newspapers and on the television, Mossad spirits Adolf Eichmann out of Buenos Aires from right under the noses of his beneficent hosts, the government.

All this drives Wakolda through a stately opening hour, and prepares the ground for a final 30 that ratchets up the pace to heart-stopping thriller.

As the mystery doc, Alex Brendemühl – who’s the spit of Robert Shaw in The Sting – charms the camera just as he charms his host family, eventually even Enzo, who he promises funding for his dollmaking. But Brendemühl is also chilling as a controlling man in a situation that fast spirals out-of-control. The exposure of his methods, and his identity, is as revealing for the viewer as it is for Eva, Enzo and Lillith, who is played with a coltish mixture of wide-eyed innocence and coming-of-age knowing by the wonderful Florencia Bado.

Wakloda has the look and feel of a film from a time when films about war were painted in mute colours and there were no clear heroes of villains — a Le Carre adaptation, perhaps, or a Forsythe. For this all credit to director Lucia Puenzo, who has adapted her own novel to tremendous effect.

DVD Review: Wakolda
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