When we think of the term “starlet,” the image that immediately comes to mind is a conventionally attractive actress in her teens or 20s. Indeed, the label would hardly ever be used to describe a woman nearing her 60s. But ever since making her film debut in 2002 at the age of 42, Paulina García has proven to be every bit a rising star as her younger counterparts, turning in stunning work in recent films like “Gloria,” “Little Men.” Now, she adds another exquisite performance to her résumé as the lead in Cecilia Atán and Valeria Pivato’s “The Desert Bride.”
García stars in this gentle drama as Teresa, a long-time maid for a family in Buenos Aires. Having started at age 20, she has lived with and worked for them for more than three decades. One fateful day, however, the family decides to sell the house while under financial duress. Suddenly, Teresa is forced to make a new life for herself in the distant town of San Juan. Making her way through the desert, she comes across the town of Saint Correa. But while exploring this hallowed land, she, unfortunately, misplaces her bag containing virtually all her possessions. Flustered yet determined to salvage what’s left of her life, she sets out on an even more uncertain path.
Much like her aforementioned recent roles, Garcia once again gets to flex her acting muscles through her character’s crises and subsequent journey of self-discovery. She is a model of poise and grace in the opening scene, which sees her trekking across the desert. And as the camera zooms in on her face, Garcia channels Teresa’s years of life experience through her weary eyes.
As the plot turns towards its central quest, that expressive face becomes the film’s main attraction. Indeed, despite majestic full shots which evoke a grand epic, the film remains a beautifully intimate character study. When Teresa involves a new acquaintance in her search, her changing outlook is evident on Garcia’s face. She practically lights up the room in brief moments of spontaneous joy at the prospects of love, friendship, and renewed happiness.
Garcia’s nuanced performance is indeed a marvel to watch, guided by Atán and Pivato’s humanistic direction and storytelling. Notably, the plot also includes intermittent flashbacks to a tender relationship between Teresa and the son of her previous employers. For the most part, however, the focus is kept squarely on Teresa’s present-day journey. The result is a somewhat simplistic narrative, but its calming aura makes for a satisfying experience.
“The Desert Bride” opens in select theaters May 4.