Fernando (Federico Luppi) is a well-established university professor in Buenos Aires, dedicated to instructing and inspiring future teachers. But in the economic chaos that has become everyday life in Argentina, he is abruptly forced into retirement, leaving him and his beloved wife Lili (Mercedes Sampietro) to pick up the pieces of their lives and try to start over again in what should have been their "golden years."
Common Ground (original Spanish title: Lugares comunes) opens up some interesting themes, though it seems to avoid adequately exploring them. Clearly one central aspect of the story is Fernando's attempt to adjust to his life post-retirement; it's a difficult experience for him on many levels, from the practical need to make ends meet on a suddenly reduced income, to the emotional need to make sense of his life after so many years of identifying himself with his work.
In Fernando's relationship with his son Pedro, it seems that Common Ground is trying to open up another theme in the story. Fernando is a staunch advocate of independence; he seems to regard his son, who emigrated to Spain and took a well-paying job rather than continue to struggle in Argentina as a novelist, as a sell-out. Is the message that we should stick to our ideals, even in difficult circumstances, that we should seek out what makes us most content and not be swayed by economic or practical considerations? That seems to be what Fernando advocates... but the events of Common Ground lead us to wonder whether he's able to put into practice what he preaches. Does he actually find happiness in his new activities after retiring? Does he choose to fight, or does he, in the end, give up?
I'm not suggesting that the film needs to resolve these issues one way or the other: the very complexity of the issues and the conflicts between ideals and reality make for interesting and satisfying viewing. But the way the film handles the material, it's never quite clear whether it's trying for a more straightforward them, and muddying it, or whether it's trying to present a story of conflicting ideals. In any case, the film does prompt the viewer to think about what the events mean, and how people respond to difficult situations.
It's perhaps better to think of Common Ground as a "slice of life" film, offering a glimpse into Argentinian life, and the difficulties encountered by ordinary people trying to get on with their lives in a country that seems to be always "in crisis." It also provides an interesting look at the dynamics of exile and immigration, as Fernando and Lili travel to Spain to visit their son. As they tour Madrid, we see it through their eyes as a sort of paradise, a rich and stable environment far different from the chaos of Argentina, but in their son Pedro we also see the tensions of giving up his homeland of Argentina to make a better life in Spain.
Mercedes Sampietro won the "Best Actress" prize at the Goya (Spanish Academy) Awards as well as the San Sebastian Film Festival for her performance as Lili, and it's easy to see why. All the actors here come across as realistic people, but even more than the others, she does a lot with relatively few lines, creating a believable and three-dimensional character. By the end of the film, we've come to realize that while Fernando may be the more outwardly expressive, filling his notebooks with musings on life and circumstances, Lili is the more adaptive, both inwardly and outwardly, giving an otherwise sad ending a note of hope for the future.
Common Ground appears in an anamorphically enhanced widescreen transfer, at the film's original 1.78:1 aspect ratio. Some print flaws are scattered throughout the film, and the image is a bit soft. Overall, though, the image quality is reasonably good, offering a picture that's natural-looking and pleasing to the eye.
Optional English subtitles are available.
Both a Spanish Dolby 5.1 and a Spanish Dolby 2.0 soundtrack are offered here, but there's not much to make the 5.1 track stand out from the stereo track. The side channels get minimal use, and overall the sound is fairly flat and center-focused. On the bright side, the dialogue is satisfactorily clear and clean-sounding. English subtitles are available.
Common Ground has a fairly basic set of special features. There's a trailer for the film and filmographies, as well as a set of weblinks. A 13-minute set of trailers for other Wellspring DVDs is also included.
A quiet film without a strong narrative, Common Ground never really hooks the viewer, but nonetheless manages to provide an interesting viewing experience and a sense of satisfaction at the end. Part character study, part slice of life from modern-day Argentina, Common Ground won't appeal to everyone, but it's worth watching for those who are willing to have some patience with the film. Recommended.