Director Pablo Trapero's sprawling film Rolling Family, about four, count-em four generations of a squabbling Argentinian family all crammed into an RV for a road trip, is enough to make you nostalgic for that Robin Williams movie. Most of the conventions of storytelling and narrative cohesion have been abandoned in favor of a reality-television style authenticity, dropping us directly into the middle of a boiling lobster pot of family tension, with all the relationship wrinkles and shorthand that you might expect from such a thing. For someone like myself, who enjoys a triple-threat phobia of crowds, family functions and hot, confined spaces, watching the film was like some kind of CIA-honed discomfort that has all the hallmarks of torture, but evades it on technicalities. A certain fluency in Spanish is almost a necessary lubricant when it comes to handling the film's rapid-fire inter-generational squabbling, which starts soon after the opening credits and never stops. Without it, your eyes will be ping-ponging back and forth aggressively, as you struggle to keep track of names and faces while the caravan rolls on.
The most identifiable character in the film is the alligator-skinned Emilia (Graciana Chironi), an elderly grump who is clearly not long for this world and refuses to take any kind of medication that might forestall her passing. It's largely out of a matriarchal deference to Emilia that the various family factions, including her daughters Claudia (Ruth Dobel) and Marta (Liliana Capuro) and their offspring are brought along on a trip that begins at one tip of Argentina and goes all the way to the other. There's supposedly a wedding waiting for them at the other end of the movie, and various problems creep up that threaten to keep them from the church on time. One of them suffers from a debilitating toothache, which is a typical example. Of the younger generation along for the ride, there is Ernesto, a philandering husband, and Claudio, a young punk who agitates everyone in his path. Together, they all provide enough fights and crying fits and revelations to make Jerry Springer squeal with delight.
Because it never deigns to break away from the pack and elevate one family member's story above the rest, it's hard to see Rolling Family as staking out any specific position on family life, either pro or con. Emilia, the ancient matriarch, is the only family member somewhat above the melodramatic fray, and that's only because of her age. The film seems to regard this bitter family squabbling as an inevitable reality of life, which doesn't necessarily ring true in this day and age for young Americans, who act more typically as an army of one. Creating a physical distance between yourself and the family unit is almost a rite of passage, isn't it? To be, as some of the characters in this film are, middle-aged and still hotly concerned about the various schisms and old wounds of your tribe, is not exactly a sign of upward mobility. Most of the people I know who fit that description wouldn't be qualified to offer an opinion on anything other than their own family issues.
From what I understand, the film is intended to have special political resonance for the Argentinian audience – some kind of post-financial crisis 'we're all in this RV together' type of message. The film doesn't read to an outsider on that level, however. There are very few conversations that leap out as having larger significance than "I can't believe you're sleeping with him!" or "if we don't fix the RV, we'll never make it to the wedding!" As a counterpoint, I would nod to last year's Israeli drama Campfire, which was also about a family dynamic in the middle of turbulent national forces. That film, however, had the dramatic surety to be about what it wanted to be about, instead of being reduced to what it was – a movie about a family squabble. So I don't feel unqualified to say that Rolling Family doesn't exactly convey anything meaningful to a broad audience.
Don't get me wrong – the film isn't bad on the level of execution. Some of the camerawork in the early scenes, showing Emilia at play with the animals that surround her house, is quite lovely. With all of the various characters and motivations to juggle, a slouch directorial effort would immediately draw attention to itself – not the case here. The film's flaws are at the conceptual level, and more an issue of personal taste than anything else. For my money, it's just too enamored with loud, abrasive intimacy. There's too much of the angry and the smelly and the uncomfortable. If I was a passenger on this trip, I'd be the weird, quiet cousin sitting all the way in the back of the RV, with headphones on and my head buried in some science-fiction novel about an antiseptic, white-walled future world with rigid social conventions and vehicles that don't break down on the side of the road every five minutes. And I'd be happy as a clam.