If you’ve ever spent an extended amount of time in a small town, The Distinguished Citizen will prove to be not only an entertaining watch but a relatable one. Even those who’ve never ventured out of the city will appreciate its immersive take on provincial culture, a way to calm your travel bug during this interminable lockdown.
The Argentinian drama stars Oscar Martínez, also seen in Wild Tales (another Argentinian Netflix gem), as Daniel Mantovani, a Nobel-winning fiction writer living in Barcelona. After winning the grand prize that has to this day eluded Argentinian writers, he gets a letter from his home town, where he hasn’t lived for 40 years, inviting him back to receive a special award in recognition of his achievement and the town’s highest honor. He’s at first apprehensive, but realizes that a vacation to the soul of his writings – the town and its people inspired all his novels – may do him good. But, upon arrival in Salas, a fictional place in the middle of nowhere, town life soon consumes him. What he thought would be a quiet retreat to his roots quickly escalates. The longer he stays, the more his presence seems to rot, as does his power and control over the place.
As the pride of the town, Mantovani is paraded around on a fire engine by the mayor, presented with a bust and a painted mural of himself and asked to teach a workshop. He’s charmed at first, but Mantovani’s cosmopolitan cynicism starts to clash with the townspeople. When a childhood friend, played by comedian Dady Brieva, finds him, the life he ostensibly exiled himself from and the woman he left behind hook him back in.
Two narratives unfold simultaneously. The first is directly in front of the viewer, watching Mantovani, a caricature of himself, trying to navigate his few days around the townies. The jaded writer is tense but tolerant at first. Finally, he rebels – and is met with a life-threatening scenario.
The second narrative, and whether it exists at all, is up to the viewer to debate. What’s happening in Mantovani’s head? Was it Mantovani’s intention to leave the town the way he does?
While some may find the results of this set-up predictable, I found it packed with keen observations and intriguing ideas. By bringing a conventionally successful writer back to his old town, the film raises questions about the creative process, the responsibility of writers, and how their fiction – or what is, at least, supposed to be – can affect reality. It also explores a package of classic oppositions: town v city, tradition v progress, morals v ethics, nationalism v globalism, honesty v fact.
With such universal themes, one could easily see the film recreated and textured with the aesthetics of another country. Yet it’s exactly the precision of detail in the film’s setting that makes it unique and so real. Like the Coen brothers’ Fargo or Harper Lee’s Maycomb, The Distinguished Citizen’s directors, Gastón Duprat and Mariano Cohn, create a character of their fictional Salas. It’s in the small things: the mayor’s unbuttoned shirt, the khaki-colored Renault 12s with corroding bumpers, the colonial-era buildings covered in moss and art deco fonts peeling off the walls. Even the sing-song tone of the town’s public TV host is quintessential to the decaying Anytown Argentinian pueblo. It’s exactly this mix of precise reality and obtuse cliche that allows the film to flourish.
Although it might appear so, by the nature of the themes it explores, The Distinguished Citizen is not trying to make a political statement or take a stance. It does not posit a right and left or right and wrong. It does, however, force the viewer to question themselves and whether they find themselves laughing at Mantovani or the townspeople. I’d argue there’s room for a Hollywood remake, ideally one that works better than the glossy redo of Argentinian thriller The Secret in Their Eyes. In this climate of political division in the United States, it might soothe some sores.
The Distinguished Citizen is available on Netflix in the UK and US