The Lifeguard (El Salvavidas)

Director: Maite Alberdi
Writer: Maite Alberdi, Sebastián Brahm, Alejandro Fernández
Year: 2011
Cast: Mauricio Rodríguez, Jean Pierre Palacios, Alan Munoz

★★☆☆☆

Maite Alberdi’s debut feature, The Lifeguard, has the look and feel of a documentary but is actually a short drama. Set entirely on a stretch of Chilean beach and focusing principally on a single character, the prickly lifeguard, Mauricio (Mauricio Rodríguez), it relies on its ability to immerse the audience in the setting. Pablo Valdés’s excellent cinematography ensures there are plenty of evocative shots, particularly at the beginning. The first image is beautiful, highlighting the bright morning mist that surrounds the lifeguard towers. The sound of the sea is continually present, as are conversations between the diverse crowd of beachgoers. The film has a naturalistic feel – we are taken in close and get to know the characters sitting around the camera, in the same superficial way as we would if we were actually there.

The Lifeguard El Salvavidas

The character of Mauricio is visually interesting — he looks cool with long dreadlocks and dark sunglasses, but his appearance is at odds with his personality. A stickler for the rules, he certainly does not see the beach as somewhere to chill out. The film is structured around his daily routine, which primarily involves arguing with beachgoers, building a relationship with a young boy and complaining about his rival lifeguard, Jean Pierre (Jean Pierre Palacios). Jean Pierre is his polar opposite, regularly late for work, openly relaxed and restrained when it comes to blowing his whistle.

Despite its aesthetic qualities, The Lifeguard quickly becomes rather dull. The camera sets the viewer up as an observer, but, generally, there is little to observe. For the majority of the film, the action is entirely composed of dialogue between lifeguards and members of the public. There are some interesting moments, particularly when Mauricio interacts with the boy, but more often than not, there are no points of reference which allow us connect with what is being said. Some of the conversations feel forced, though this may be due to the translated subtitles (I do not speak any Spanish). Regardless, it causes the facade of realism to collapse and makes it difficult to care about the minor characters.

Eventually, Alberdi deems it necessary to inject some drama into the story, but even this is only glimpsed second hand. The incident itself is predictable, although it must be said the consequences are not. Mauricio changes dramatically as a result, which could have been an interesting development, but his transformation is never really explored. Simply changing the tone fails to revive the film and, although the visual effect is again interesting, this is nowhere near enough.

The Lifeguard is essentially a film which relies on immersion, but it leaves the audience feeling bored. The beach is seen and heard but rarely felt, which is ultimately where the film falls short. It takes so long for something to happen and, when it comes, it is disappointing. To make up for the repetitive, disjointed build-up, it needed to be spectacular.

Rob Dickie

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