December 15, 2007
Rodrigo Cortes's first feature, Contestant is something like effervescent, visual prestidigitation, a self-consciously frenetic, hyperactive, insubstantial, flauntingly inconstant, and naïve satire on the perils of modern-day instant wealth, consumerism, applied economics, and state taxation. The film follows the plight of an attractive economics history professor, Martin Circo (Leonardo Sbaraglia) who wins the largest cache of prizes ever awarded at a trivia game show on television, only to realize that he cannot afford to pay the windfall taxes that have been attached to his winnings. Initially seeking a short-term financial remedy by taking out a line of credit from a bank using his winnings as collateral with the idea of paying off the taxes in order to unfreeze his newly acquired assets from the government's lien and enable him to sell them and repay the bank, Martin soon realizes the inescapable financial quagmire that he has been ensnared, when he bank then subsequently seizes his assets as insurance against defaulting on the debt. Cortes deploys a dizzying arsenal of gratuitous, MTV-generation, short attention span, film school 101 clichés (including simulated, Brakhage-styled scratch film sequences, arbitrarily interwoven color and black and white sequences, fluid, birds eye view crane shots, knowing, fourth wall addresses, and repeating slow-motion rain and bath shower scenes that highlight the pixellated texturality of water drops) to distracting, and ultimately uninspired (and even off-putting) effect that distracts from the film's more relevant, critical assessment of indenturing, collusive financial institutions that reinforce social immobility and economic polarization, integral questions on the systemization of poverty and dependency and that was better articulated in Abderrahmane Sissako's spare, yet potent and incisive Bamako.