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Arlen Aguayo Stewart stars in Katherine Jerkovic's Roads in February.

Courtesy of TIFF

  • Roads in February
  • Written and directed by Katherine Jerkovic
  • Starring Arlen Aguayo Stewart
  • Classification N/A
  • 84 minutes

rating

3.5 out of 4 stars

There is stillness in loss, but it takes time. First comes the final turn of the shovel, old clothes dropped off at the Salvation Army, and the returning of the casserole dishes. The nothingness of bereavement doesn’t settle in until the last friend has been dropped at the airport.

That ache makes Katherine Jerkovic’s Roads in February (Les routes en Fevrier) a universal one, even if the spare language is Spanish. We’re watching two generations come to grips with the loss of one’s son and the other’s father in a village that modernity has forgotten.

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The film exists in an emotional twilight captured in the first shot. A fading sun flits into a cheap hotel room as Sara (Arlen Aguayo Stewart) unsuccessfully tries to reach her grandmother Magda. Sara wants to tell her she is making her way from her adopted Canada through Montevideo back to Magda in the Uruguayan village where her late father was born and raised.

The phone just rings and rings, leading to Sara surprising her grandmother late one night. The two haven’t seen each other in years, and, as in much of Roads in February, few words are said and those that are are awkward. (It’s not until 20 minutes in that the viewer realizes what each has lost.) It’s uncertain if Magda is truly happy to see her granddaughter or she would rather mourn alone.

From there, nothing much happens, but achingly so. Anyone who has walled off the death of a loved one will recognize how Sara and Magda nimbly avoid their grief. They argue over shortbread and Sara’s decision not to pursue her artistic dreams; anything but talking about the man they both have lost.

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Sara and her grandmother, Magda, circle their collective loss in a Uruguayan village.

Courtesy of TIFF

The mismatched pair­ circle their collective loss as the village’s ennui and the stultifying heat of South American summer engulf them. It’s not quite hot enough for hell, but it is a steamy purgatory, captured expertly by cinematographer Nicolas Canniccioni. A dog tries to rise in the midday heat and surrenders back to sleep. Shafts of light descend on the inside of an abandoned train station. Time stands still as the women try to heal. The film is only 84 minutes long, but it feels longer. For the first time in cinema, that’s a compliment. Sarita, as her grandmother calls her, lingers in town and tries to help Magda by shopping for groceries and getting a ruptured pipe repaired, which may be an obvious metaphor for the split between the two women that distance and the years have caused.

The emotional tension between the two is the opposite of melodramatic; psychological sentries guard their hearts. Even when Magda and Sarita finally have cross words, there is no telenovela wailing and rending of garments. Magda loses her emotional control for a moment and says something cruel. Sarita doesn’t respond, but you can see in Stewart’s eyes that she is retreating to safer ground.

The film ends with Sarita on a journey. As in the rest of the film, the stakes seem low­ but turn out to have a painful resonance – a minor-key version of Chekov’s gun going off. Like a stripped-down rock record about which you occasionally think, “Ah, there’s a good place to put some horns,” Roads in February will occasionally make you want more – an extra line of dialogue, maybe one broken plate. But, in the end, when Magda and Sarita reach an emotional communion over their shared loss, you will be glad that Jerkovic left the spaces open.

It’s up to you to fill in the blanks.

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Roads in February opens July 19 at the TIFF Lightbox in Toronto

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