There are movies that make you think and feel and then think again. They seem simple at first. Then, there's a moment after the closing credits have rolled and you're sitting there reflecting on the film and you realize that there was much more going on than you ever realized.
Such is the case with Alex Lora-Cercos' The Masterpiece, a 20-minute short film that recently kicked off its festival journey with a Short Film Grand Jury Prize at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival.
Trust me, this film is not done winning awards.
The set-up itself is simple. Leo (Daniel Grao) and Diana (Melina Matthews) are at a recycle center with a broken television. It would seem they are a wealthier couple, perhaps discarding easily that for which they no longer have use. They encounter scrappers Salif (Babou Cham) and Yousef (Adam Nourou). Inexplicably, Leo and Diana invite the two men back to the home for additional items needing recycled, a generous act perhaps. Perhaps not.
There is an underlying tension that radiates throughout The Masterpiece, original music amplifying a sense that we're not quite seeing everything that's unfolding. Lensing by Manel Aguado lurks like a dark shadow following every character in every moment except for those brief moments when someone without explanation disappears. Our sympathies fluctuate, our attention wanders around all the possibilities that could unfold here from acts of violence to sabotage to generosity to something more fundamental.
The performances here all mesmerize. It's clear early on that Leo and Diana are the haves. Salif and Yousef are the have nots.
Or perhaps it's the other way around.
One is never quite sure.
As Leo, Daniel Grao makes sure we keep guessing and wondering. There's something underneath his seeming friendly facade and generous gesture. The same is true for Melina Matthews' Diana, a woman of heightened wary and anxiety-filled unspoken ambition. Guido Grao, Daniel's real-life son, is here as their son and we're practically sitting alongside him trying to figure out this dance of dread and wonder.
There's a subtle racism that creeps in if we're not lying to ourselves as we find ourselves wondering about these two scrappers. Babou Cham possesses a a remarkable charisma with just a hint of menace that we plant on him. Cham offers a subtle and remarkable performance. Adam Nourou is equally impressive as Yousef, embodying uncertainty and a tapestry filled with possibilities.
I wouldn't dare to explain how the story unfolds, though perhaps that's impossible anyway since the script by Lluis Quilez and Alfonso Amador refuses to spoonfeed us easy answers or absolutes. There's so much at play here that is hypnotic and thought-provoking as we explore issues of systemic imbalancs and the kind of economic discrimination that jars and unsettles, disorients and convolutes.
It's early in 2024, however, I'm comfortable saying that The Masterpiece will be one of the year's finest live-action shorts.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic