Written and directed by Colombian director Natalia Santa, Malta is a slice-of-life drama — making a world premiere at SXSW this weekend — about a curious woman who keeps seeking and never finding. Young twenty-something Mariana (Estefanía Piñeres) works in a medical supply call center, looking up cities on Google Earth during her down time. She takes night classes in German, and heads to clubs afterwards to hook up with random men so she doesn’t have to go home.

Piñeres plays Mariana as independent and angry, although she rarely vents that emotion. Even after a seductive stranger assaults her (cw: rape), the lead character keeps her feelings inside. She has no friends, just her siblings and a guy in her German class who harbors a crush on her. She is hard to read, which makes it difficult for the viewer to relate to her journey.

Through sex, Mariana attempts to find release or something else that eludes her; these scenes (there are many) are presented in something of a cut-and-dry manner, devoid of feeling or sensuality. While Mariana searches for connection and escape, be it through online studies of a random European city or with an unknown face in a nightclub, the character as written seems to be missing something.

The scenes with her family are the most emotionally frank Santa’s film gets. The relationship between mother Julia (Patricia Tamayo) and Mariana is cold and reserved. One particularly potent moment between the two occurs near the end, with Mariana consoling her mother as Julia sits almost catatonic with grief. But that limited glimpse of raw emotion seems too little too late.

Malta feels long at times, and the pacing takes a while to get moving. Piñeres and Tamayo do the best they can with the material, but there’s not enough to the story here and the technical elements aren’t quite compelling enough to carry the work. Unfortunately this doesn’t make for a memorable film.

Malta screens again on March 11 and 14 as part of SXSW 2024.

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