Matt Zoller Seitz of RogerEbert.com recently tweeted an evergreen statement about art criticism: “Consider the possibility that the element in a work of art that you think serves no purpose actually does have a purpose, but you can’t see it.” Imagine the extremely-online film critic checking social media during a first viewing or the agenda-driven writer who approaches movies with an outrage checklist and fails to identify subtextual correlations. Such individuals often use the word “pointless” in reviews; a direct insult to filmmakers and their production teams who adhere to Ernest Hemingway’s iceberg theory. It’s the ol’ “I didn’t personally vibe with [scene, character or concept], therefore it doesn’t make sense and should’ve been cut.” One could view Seitz’s statement as pretentious, but it is indeed the film critic’s job to inform and enlighten people who are genuinely curious about filmmaking and art in general. Stealing Rodin, a 2017 documentary by Cristóbal Valenzuela Berríos, examines the systems of vulnerability that exist within art culture and Chilean culture, and even within the mind of a Chilean art student named Luis Emilio Onfray Fabres.
In June 2005, the Palace of Fine Arts in Santiago, Chile featured the work of French sculptor Auguste Rodin. Students from nearby Arcis University attended the opening day event, and curators were naturally upset when “The Torso of Adele” disappeared that evening. The aforementioned Fabres claimed that he found the sculpure in a park, only to later reveal that he swiped the piece during a bathroom break and wanted to make a cultural statement about “the duality between the absent and the present.” From the investigators’ point of view, Fabres appeared to be a scared-shitless kid who didn’t fully understand the bigger picture, in terms of Chile’s damaged reputation within art culture. But perhaps the authorities were passive and confused observers who missed a key element in a work of art that seemingly served no purpose. Stealing Rodin deconstructs Fabres’ motivations and how the open-void/duality aspect of the art project applies to his French-Chilean ethnicity.
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Stealing Rodin is aesthetically subtle. Berríos identifies interview subjects through audio rather than interstitial graphics. The film begins with a sprawling cityscape visual that zooms towards Santiago’s Palace of Fine Arts, and concludes with a similar shot that moves away from the museum. Stealing Rodin’s sound design creates a sci-fi feel and suggests an otherworldly presence — maybe from the past, maybe from the future. Duality; the absent and present. At times, Stealing Rodin feels like the first four levels of Christopher Nolan’s Inception (2010), as Berríos immerses himself into Fabres’ mind to explore the criminal act itself (reality), the sociopolitical aspects of the investigation (the chase), the psychology behind the primary subject’s behavior (absent father issues) and ultimately a familial truth that is both absent and very much present in the Chilean artist’s work. Stealing Rodin shuffles theories like a card deck and deals out a confusing hand to the audience. What do you see? A drunken, transgressive artist? An emotionally-damaged Chilean with an axe to grind? An infinite act of punga-ness? Stealing Rodin explains Fabres’ master plan while allowing him to “provoke a fantasy” for the sake of Chilean culture.
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Back to Seitz’s Twitter commentary about elements of art that seemingly serve no purpose. If the critic is willfully blind, then what fills their headspace? Probably contempt for the artist. You missed this and that. You didn’t address the issues at the core of my worldview. You left things out. But the best artists know that less is more, and that their work will endure if it sparks debates and allows for various interpretations. There’s a reason why the most-mocked people of Film Twitter (I’m thinking of someone in Los Angeles) remain relevant figures and don’t go away — it’s because their industry peers keep talking about them, usually to get a laugh or some extra social media clout. “You like me! You really like me!” And so the transgressors are very much present, even if they are absent from your timeline. It’s not good feelings that make great art, as one interviewee notes in Berríos’ documentary, it’s originality and a willingness to take risks. “Transgression and art are totally compatible.” Stealing Rodin is one of the most complex and narratively rich documentaries of its time.
Stealing Rodin is available to stream exclusively at OVID.tv.
Q.V. Hough (@QVHough) is Vague Visages’ founding editor.