Pablo Giorgelli, Las Acacias, 2011, 35 mm, color, 85 minutes. Jacinta, Anahí, and Rubén (Hebe Duarte, Nayra Calle Mamani, and Germán de Silva).

OBSERVATIONAL CINEMA of an exceptionally subtle and affecting order and a road movie like no other, Argentine filmmaker Pablo Giorgelli’s Las Acacias has taken a year and a half to travel from its 2011 Cannes Film Festival debut to its New York opening. At Cannes, it won the Camera d’Or (for best first feature) and also my favorite Cannes prize, the Grand Rail d’Or, which is given by an organization of French railroad workers. The workers are adventurous cinephiles, with tastes running to humanist films that stretch the conventions of realism to show unexpected truths. In 1998, they bestowed the prize on Gaspar Noé’s harrowing I Stand Alone, a film that is as painful in its vision of love and loss as Las Acacias is tender and—at the risk of making it sound sentimental, which it is not—uplifting.

The film’s premise is its most traditional aspect: A single mother and her five-month-old baby girl are the catalysts of change in the life of a lonely, emotionally closed, middle-aged man. Rubén (Germán de Silva), a long-distance trucker, hauls logs from the acacia forests of Asunción del Paraguay to Argentina. As a favor to his boss, he agrees to let Jacinta (Hebe Duarte), whose mother, we later learn, works in the boss’s house, ride with him to Buenos Aires where she is going to live with her extended family. One of the film’s many subtexts has to do with how indigenous people from poorer countries in South America, as a matter of course, travel to richer countries, supposedly for vacation, but actually to settle and find work.

Rubén is not happy when he discovers that he’ll also be transporting a third wheel, Jacinta’s chubby, bright-eyed daughter Anahí. Sensitive to his irritation, Jacinta at first barely speaks a word. For the first quarter of their journey, almost the only sounds are those of the truck’s wheels and gears, the wind rushing past the open windows of the cab, and the baby gurgling and occasionally wailing. Inconspicuously, the camera changes position and focus to take in the unremarkable landscape outside the windows and the faces and bodies of the two adults and the child. (Giorgelli’s choice of shooting in 35 mm anamorphic paradoxically increases the movie’s intimacy and gives the images a warmth as yet impossible to achieve with digital cameras.) Their glances and gestures tell a story.

Charming as she is, Anahí (or, rather, Nayra Calle Mamani, who incarnates her) is not a scene-stealer. But because very young children live entirely in the present moment, her mere existence coaxes the adults on the screen and the viewers in the audience to amend their habitual patterns of attention—to set aside anticipation and memory in favor of the now. Even when Rubén and Jacinta reveal fragments of their past history—he has a son whom he hasn’t seen for eight years; she cries when she talks to her mother on the phone and tells the border guard that her baby “has no father”—these details are less expressive and engrossing than, for instance, the way Rubén holds his cup of mate, his muscled forearm leaning on the window, or how Jacinta looks down at the baby cradled in her lap and, for a split second, widens her gaze to include Rubén in this maternal dyad. When nicotine-addicted Rubén, realizing that Jacinta is concerned about the baby inhaling smoke, tosses his cigarette out the window, the action resonates as a major plot point.

And when, toward the end of the film, Rubén watches tensely at a rest stop as Jacinta chats animatedly with a young man from her hometown, we suddenly realize how attached he has become to her and her child. Back in the truck, as it approaches the outskirts of Buenos Aires, Rubén’s stiffened face and shoulders prompt Jacinta to ask if he is ill. She worries for a moment, as we might, that all those ciggies has provoked a heart attack. But Rubén is suffering a different kind of heartbreak. He is overwhelmed by separation anxiety. It takes an actor as great as de Silva to express interior emotional turmoil with such clarity, and to make us wish that this completely ordinary and utterly magical journey would never end.

Amy Taubin

Las Acacias is now playing in New York and Miami.