A veteran washerman takes the wet heavy loads of laundry out to the remote desert, in an area where doing laundry is forbidden. He hangs hundreds of clothes in the scorching hot sun and waits for them to dry. But before they dry, he does something unexpected: he gets them all wet again.
As it turns out, he doesn’t truly want to finish his job. He wants to keep doing it, even if that means never finishing the actual task. But when two younger, stronger washermen come out to finish what he started, the veteran’s number may be up…
Writer-director Andrea Carrino’s short dramedy uses its stunning visuals and dynamic sense of craft to achieve an almost fantastical tale about human toil and endeavor, showcasing a character defined almost entirely by his work. There are shades of the Western genre, thanks to the evocative desert setting, but ultimately the story exists in the realm of the absurdist fable, where man finds meaning not in doing, but in being.
The material elements of the film are everyday and ordinary in and of themselves: the pile of laundry, the road in an empty landscape, the sunshine on a hot day. But through the elevated way they are photographed and composed into striking, stunning images, they achieve the heightened feeling of a fable. The beautiful cinematography, editing, score and other elements of filmmaking craft are exceptional, carrying much of the feeling and often dazzling the eye and ear. But they also imbue a sense of magic and drama into this seemingly humble character’s story, suggesting a rich metaphorical resonance.
The story, too, has an allegorical bent and is less interested in individual psychology than in the archetypes that each story element evokes. There are also touches of cheekiness and humor, like the striking visual of an inordinately huge, cheerful pile of laundry carried by the washerman. The overall world of the film is almost dreamlike in how striking and unreal it is, but instead of floaty and ethereal, it’s sharp, comical and earthy.
Within this playful, eccentric milieu, actor Paul Copley’s performance offers the story’s most grounding element. He plays emotions of worry, relief and sadness with a recognizable tenor that is not exaggerated like some of the stylistic elements, but rather natural and subtle, with just a touch of self-knowing irony. The washerman is essentially an Everyman, who seems entirely defined by his work. He does his job diligently, day in and day out — but then just as his work is almost done, he intentionally self-sabotages it, getting the clothes wet again. It’s a strange, almost nonsensical turn, and things only get odder when he encounters a rival pair of younger, stronger washermen, who finish his job for him — and perhaps finish his career off for good.
With its unforgettable images and command of cinematic craft, “Ropeless” is a unique, singular story that exists in a different realm. It’s not realism or fantasy, but a kind of symbolic absurdism that leverages all the elements of film storytelling to create an almost visionary world and experience. The message could be about the difficulty of an older generation to make way for the younger, or maybe just an unwillingness to let go of the status quo, even as change is on the horizon. But in the end, once we accept and even embrace those changes, we find ourselves looking forward to the next stage and all its possibilities.