Daniel Mantovani (Oscar Martínez) is a celebrated author repected all over the world, and a miserable curmudgeon. He can’t even accept the Nobel Prize in Literature with good grace, but goes to Stockholm purely to pour scorn on those who have nominated him.
Wealthy beyond words, Mantovani spends his days in his bunker-like house in Barcelona, attended only by his servant and his literary agent. Hours pass while he rejects invitation after invitation, prize after prize from places as far away as Japan. Unsurprisingly, his inspiration has dried up through this isolated lifestyle. The great novelist has not written a novel in five years, just articles for newspapers, throwaway fluff.
Then a letter arrives from Salas, Mantovani’s birth town in a remote part of Argentina. The mayor wants to present him with an award for being the town’s ‘Ciudadano Ilustre’, ‘Distinguished Citizen’.
Despite not having been back for forty years, not even for his father’s funeral, Mantovani capriciously decides to clear his diary and head off home. And then his trouble really begins.
“Pueblo pequeno, infierno grande” as they say in Spanish: ‘small village, big (or complete) hell’. A description that Salas lives up to all too well. It’s a shoddy, run-down hole in the back of beyond with mud roads and closed shops, where everyone’s car breaks down after ten miles.
Worse of all, Mantovani discovers that back home, he is not the great man of letters that he is to the world at large. In Salas, when he tells a tale or reads from one of his books, people immediately recognise his ‘characters’ as local people who lived there in the past. The settings are places on the edge of town. Even the stories are well-known, barely disguised, popular anecdotes.
Coming home also means he has to confront the people he left behind, who have lived their lives in the shadows of Mantovani’s barely disguised autobiographical writings. He makes little attempt to make peace with the past, alternately ridiculing and belittling everyone he meets.
In their defence, the people of Salas fight back. Mantovani might be an international literary star, but his contemporaries are bitter and envious of his success. It’s only the young that he can inspire, literary fans and budding authors, whom he encourages with a kindness that can only come from knowing what it was like to be a wannabe from the middle of nowhere.
The Argentine film industry is widely regarded to be among the finest in the Spanish-speaking world. Their movies are gritty, real and punctuated with a sardonic humour that keeps you smiling even while watching dreadful people behaving horrendously to each other. The Distinguished Citizen is the latest film in this tradition.
The movie also comes at a moment when many people idolise great writers, and where their words of wisdom are regurgitated ad infinitum on blogs and tweets and Facebook. Here we see the artist as a selfish outsider, whose main way of relating to people is stealing their lives as raw material for his work. Argentina’s candidate for this year’s Oscars, The Distinguished Citizen is one sharp kick in the pants for the celebrated cult of the author.