Social media influencers always want to be the centre of attention, and the Chilean film La Veronica takes that quite literally. In a stylistic choice that, in the century-plus history of cinema, may be a first, every shot in this film (with one minor exception) features its main character in the exact middle of the frame, facing the camera, only occasionally turning to the side if she has to talk to somebody, but usually not even then. While this may seem like a symbol of her extreme solipsism – and it certainly is that – the device actually reminds us how we are all essentially prisoners of our own subjectivity, for better or for worse. Usually for worse.
A device like this also might seem tedious over a 100-minute running time. Hardly. The backgrounds change, the times of day change, Veronica’s scene partners change, and her emotional states change. The result is a series of chronological vignettes from this woman’s life, and because Veronica does not move from the centre of the shot (with one minor exception), they are all performed in a single take, without any edits, sometimes running for a full two or three minutes. Which also makes this a performance with a high degree of difficulty for actress Mariana Di Girolamo, who was the star of MIFF 68 ½’s closing night film, Ema.
And what a life it is. Veronica Lara is the wife of a Chilean football star (Ariel Mateluna) who has been playing in Dubai for the past half a decade, but the couple is finally returning to Chile where they will raise their newborn daughter, Amanda, and where a writer (Patricia Rivadeneira) will write Veronica’s biography. She’s achieved fame through social media and lives an opulent lifestyle of luxury, but her current crisis is that she might not be famous enough. In order to become the new face of a cosmetics company on all their billboards, she needs to have two million followers on Instagram. Currently, she’s only got half that.
What should be a bigger concern is that she’s being investigated as a suspect in the death of her first daughter, which occurred years ago, before she left the country and before she married Javier. Given how poorly she’s coping with her current infant – she dons headphones to drown out the child’s screaming – it certainly seems possible Veronica did throw her first child down the stairs to her death. The guilt of the accused and her lack of sufficient Instagram followers are not the only things impacting her self-esteem. Her husband’s wandering eye is making her question whether she’s no longer young, with her second round of motherhood serving as an acute symbol of that possibility.
Writer-director Leonardo Medel’s conception of La Veronica is genius, and Di Girolamo is just the actress to deliver it. The film smash cuts between the high highs and the low lows of Veronica’s life, from being adored by fans and sunning by the pool to answering difficult questions about the night her daughter died, and everywhere in between. It’s the in-between moments that may be the most demanding from the actress, as Veronica will be in the midst of a glamourous photo shoot when she learns the cosmetics company is considering contenders who have 500,000 more followers than she does. Since the camera is always on Di Girolamo’s face, she has nowhere to hide. Her every tic, her every downturned smile, her every panicked widening of her eyes must dramatise for her audience the way she’s processing every new bit of information.
The film wouldn’t work so well if it didn’t look so gorgeous. For starters there’s the rigorous formal trick of Di Girolamo’s positioning within the shot, which is identical from one scene to the next, sometimes giving the impression that only the background and her clothing are changing, and the actress herself is staying perfectly still. (Wes Anderson might die of professional jealousy.) But the sets, outfits and other accoutrements are also so beautiful that they pop right off the screen, their colours rich and exquisite. As much a feat of acting by Di Girolamo and directing by Medel as this is, Pedro Garcia’s cinematography is essential. He’s the one who had to measure Di Girolamo’s exact distance from his camera and exact centring within the frame.
To discuss only the technical accomplishments of this extraordinary film is to overlook how much it has going on thematically. It’s bursting with currency as it examines the conflict between the artificial beauty we project through social media and the actual mental deterioration we may be enduring – especially in times of pandemic. La Veronica would make an exceptional double feature with the recent Netflix comedy special/film/cultural artefact Inside from comedian Bo Burnham, which gives voice to all the internet-age contradictions that cross over Di Girolamo’s face in just a moment on screen. It’s a searing portrait of the toxicity of the self.
La Veronica is available for streaming rental through MIFF streaming until 22 August.