Berlinale 2021 review: Ski (Manque La Banca)

“These are the stories and anecdotes that continue in our narrations, and they continue to happen in the high part of the mountain”

A quality that binds many horror films is the fear of the unknown – we are certainly frightened by what we can see, but it is what we can’t see, with fear still lurking around just out of sight, that scares us the most. Manque La Banca employs some degree of this theory in Esquí (Ski), his ambitious feature-length directorial debut, a film that is both thoroughly captivating and entirely impossible to place in any existing category. Initially constructed as a documentary on Bariloche, whose beautiful, snow-capped mountains make it Argentina’s primary destination for ski tourism, the film becomes something else entirely, a merciless, multi-layered psychological thriller that blurs fact and fiction in truly unsettling ways. Infused with a sense of horror, where the terror is spoken through the alternating of hushed, fearful whispers and hypnotic electronic music, Ski is a film that challenges us to think outside of what is considered normal by preconceived standards, and instead embrace the intrinsic madness that punctuates this film and makes it such a stunningly bizarre but wholly worthwhile endeavour in experimental filmmaking. Presenting us with a sense of palpable danger and bewitching dark humour that hints at the harrowing depths of the story, La Banca takes us on a journey into the depths of his hometown and is not willing to let go until he has put the viewer through an unprecedented, disturbing experience. We become voyeurs, peering into another culture and sampling from its rich and varied history, and encountering stories that amuse us at first but gradually start to disturb us as we learn more about the region.

Throughout the film La Banca focuses on a range of characters who come from different backgrounds and have varied pasts – but they’re all united by the preoccupation with ‘telling Bariloche’s story properly’. Storytelling is the most basic quality of the film, since it is built on a foundation of folklore. Like his characters, the director is intent on giving a thorough overview of the small town, focusing on its people and its place in Argentinian culture – and then gradually uncovering its dark history, which forms the basis of the film’s primary discourse, creating a suspenseful psychological thriller which cleverly deconstructs conventions of the traditional ‘monster movie’. As we venture further into this film we start to question whether it’s possible for a place or culture to have a single definitive history, or if the progress of time and influence of a variety of factors mean that it’s all a matter of interpretations, set by a number of different sources who have found their way through the culture. There is a dark history underpinning Bariloche which has seemingly been eroded by time, as evidenced by the grins and laughter of the visitors who take in the sights and sounds of the beautiful region. Yet, as becomes increasingly clear through La Banca’s construction of the story, there isn’t any amount of pleasant tourism that can remove the spectre of the past, which lingers indelibly in the lives of people who know the town’s true history and are looking for ways to express their version of reality.

Ski prioritizes the use of first-hand accounts as a narrative tool, with the film functioning as a mosaic of memories. However, the question that arises through this discussion is how reliable recollections can actually be. The film constantly shifts between many characters, never lingering on any one of them long enough, which doesn’t allow us to get a clear image of who they are or what their role in this narrative actually is. This only adds to the mystery of the film and contributes to the sense of dread that looms over it. The audience has the knowledge that something is amiss from the outset, but we’re far too afraid to peek around the corner, in fear that we may discover what unearthly horrors are lurking just out of view. The difference here is that the monsters that populate this town aren’t the subject of otherworldly darkness but rather extracted from the shadowy past of Bariloche, which suffered under colonialism and years of political unrest. This has been quietly tucked away beneath the veneer of giving foreign tourists an opportunity to enjoy the resort rather than being confronted with its harrowing history. This is essentially what La Banca is trying to remedy with Ski: unpacking the history of the region and presenting it as a haunting, surreal drama that finds reality becoming inextricably linked with artificial constructions. Nothing is quite what it seems in the world of this story, which only serves to further support the sense of uneasiness that drives the film.

La Banca is a young director who has his vision fueled by an insatiable anger towards the system and the people who upheld it for decades. This manifests most prominently in the final moments of the film, where the coda of Ski abandons abstract surrealism and presents the audience with a barrage of bleak documentary footage from a series of protests that occurred not far from where the film is set, showing the realities of those situated outside the tranquil margins of this idyllic resort. The film boldly states that “if you don’t take a stand, you become an accomplice“, a sentiment often used in relation to any kind of movement. Instead of making his fury known through a more straightforward demonstration, La Banca chooses to follow a more abstract path, using the banality of the ski resort’s everyday operations as a facilitator of some surreal discussions and situating it in an uncanny version of our own world. So much of Ski is instinctual – we rely on sensory clues and vague intuition to piece together the fragments that are scattered throughout the film, which is propelled by a distinct human rawness that is constantly hinting at something much deeper. The film deftly balances themes and a multitude of genres in its pursuit of a deeper understanding of incredibly pressing issues for which the director demonstrates a furious passion. Using the medium less as a means to entertain, but rather as a powerful tool to inform and educate about a reality many may not have been aware of, Ski is a profoundly moving and outright terrifying protest. A bewildering drama that employs elements of terror in its endeavour to show that not all horrors are lurking out of sight, but rather right in front of us, masquerading as the social and cultural systems often considered to be the most sacrosanct of all.