Nino is the “sultan of soap” of his village, eking out a living in his sleepy yet contentious seaside fishing town.
One day, though, he gets a call from his country’s president: the president intends to visit the soap maker as part of his campaign to “clean up” the country of corruption and wants all his best soap — and plenty of it. For security reasons, Nino isn’t told the date or hour of the president’s arrival and is not allowed to tell anyone else.
Of course, Nino tells one of his fellow villagers, and the news spreads. Soon the whole town frantically prepares for the president’s visit: everyone dresses up, festoons the village with flags and posters of the president, all with the intent of impressing the president. They embark on their own campaigns to get the president’s attention, much to the consternation of Nino, who clearly endangered the confidentiality he was supposed to keep.
Unable to keep the village under control, the rivalries and tensions latent between people bubble up. And in the chaos, the village’s attempts to clean up its image backfires — although the village doesn’t quite see it that way.
Absurdist political comedy is not often a genre you see in short films, but writer-director Cyril Aris’s short does a remarkable job of encapsulating a wide-ranging political situation within one event and pushing its premise to the most extreme end, with humorous yet sharply insightful results.
There’s no shortage of excellent craftsmanship in the film, with its elegant cinematography and stately editing, and there is a studied, almost mannered quality to the compositions that will remind some of Wes Anderson. The village itself functions much like a collective protagonist, and while Nino is the main character, visually there’s an emphasis on wide and group shots, or shots that situate Nino in a moving tableau of village life.
The visuals are subtly stylized and striking, but the foundational strength of the short rests on its exceptional writing, which possesses a keen eye for the absurdities created by human vanity and an ear for the hypocrisies we tell one another in the service of ego. The narrative scale is confined to one visit, but the script’s ability to create layers of subtlety and context is remarkably complex. Though it’s played for laughs, the villagers’ frenzy feels very true to a societal portrait of humankind’s worst impulses — impulses that can’t be kept in check, resulting in chaos and damage that is blithely overlooked in the face of power.
The take on politics in “The President’s Visit” is ultimately astringent in its sharpness, and though the film plays out much like a comedy, its portrayal of a populace’s willingness to kowtow to power even to their own detriment is essentially a tragedy — one hinted at the film’s resonant final shots. It also emerges as a parable about the willingness of people to blindly follow a leader, no matter how problematic he or she is.
Though “The President’s Visit” has the feel of a fable in its stylization at times, it’s rooted in real life: there’s plenty of examples of a lack of critical thought in yesterday’s history or today’s news, which makes the film’s wry humor both a consolation and despair.