Not much is going on in Maite Alberdi’s The Lifeguard – but in that nothingness, we get to see something.

Steffen Moestrup

Regular critic in ModernTimes.review and NY TID, the Monthly Norwegian newspaper. He is also doing his PhD in Aarhus, Denmark.

The film observes the routine of a man who is anxious for the moment to arrive when everything will become worthwhile. While he waits for this to happen, he creates duties for himself and finds amusement listening to the living-room conversations taking place on the sand. The lifeguard becomes a silent witness to everyday life in Chile.

Focusing on a narrow part of society can be very beneficial for a documentary. It probably allows the director to become more acquainted with the environment and the people in that specific place. But it also demands something extra of the film which can be difficult to pinpoint in words. That perhaps has to do with a stronger demand for interesting characters, a special kind of narrative development and/or a stylistic approach driven mainly by originality and fascination. Being a somewhat narrow film portraying the working life of a lifeguard on a beach in Chile, The Lifeguard has some difficulties in meeting these criteria.

The lifeguard gets up early. He is preparing his tower: untying the rope, setting up the signs, pulling out the ladder. Small numbers of people gather on the beach but as the day progresses more and more people appear. Beach activities commence. A group of men play a game, others go for a swim, some elderly women sit on the beach and talk about all the other people on the beach, a couple of young boys drink beer and try to hide it from the lifeguard. No one drowns. At least not for the time being. So the lifeguard takes on other duties. He helps a man to track down his lost company, and he assists a couple in finding their lost daughter. He discusses with a persistent couple whether or not it is allowed to barbecue on the beach. All the time we get a feeling that he is waiting for something to happen. As he constantly observes the beach, and we observe him observing the beach, we get a notion that something might happen in just a few seconds. But not much happens. So narrative development of the sort I mentioned in the beginning of this review is not around in The Lifeguard. But something else is going on. While waiting for something to happen, for the film to really begin, we sense a tension that is probably not unlike the tension the lifeguard must feel all the time he is working. To always be alert. To always have a feeling that something dramatic is about to happen. And when it finally does happen, we – and the lifeguard too for that matter – are caught off guard.

There is an extra dimension to the main character that should help the film but in many ways does not. He is said to be afraid of the water. The other lifeguards talk about this. How can you hire a lifeguard who is afraid of the water from which he is supposed to rescue people? The rumour goes around and creates some kind of conflict among the group of lifeguards – but the problem here is that the conflict and the rumour do not really manifest themselves in real life. They seem more or less created by the film itself.  It seems artificial and constructed and in a way it feels like an annoying and inappropriate appendix created by the filmmaker.

It is a shame because the protagonist is actually well chosen. The director, Chilean Maite Alberdi, held a huge casting and went through more than 80 lifeguards before she chose the one in the film. In interviews she has stated that she chose Mauricio because of his complex character, and in many ways I can relate to her choice. Mauricio’s appearance is in many ways different from his personality. He looks like a surfer dude with his tan, mirror sunglasses and Rasta hair style – but he acts more like an authoritative official with his strong belief in regulations and rules. He is strict and difficult to argue with when it comes to the rules of the beach. Sometimes he almost loses him temper, especially when youngsters trash talk him, but he is fully aware that he cannot do so, that he is obliged to keep calm and not to think about himself. The complexities of his character work well in themselves. The director tries to make a contrast to Mauricio by also following the neighbouring lifeguard who is a more relaxed, perhaps even lazy kind of guy but this does not work very well. It feels constructed and unnecessary. I would have preferred a more in depth look at Mauricio alone.
In terms of the style of the film, we are dealing with a pretty conservative observational documentary with a few original visual thoughts. Two stylistic decisions work very well. One is the use of Mauricio’s mirror sunglasses. When Alberdi shoots his face we also see a reflection of his surroundings and thus we get to see what he sees while we observe him. This double look creates an impression of his job and his obligation to look and look out.  Also the decision not to show the ocean very much is a clever one. Mauricio is a man of the beach, not of the water. He believes a good lifeguard should stay out of the water and confine his efforts to the beach. The film visually illustrates his way of thinking in a very intelligent way.

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