Over the past decade, the people of Venezuela have fought for freedom. While Chavez died many years ago, fights between Nicolás Maduro and Juan Guaidó defined much of the last decade. Director Diego Vicentini’s debut feature Simón captures the struggles of an asylum-seeking dissident. Drawing heavily on the concept of survivor’s guilt, Simón delivers a powerful experience.
Simón follows the titular immigrant (Christian McGaffney) after he arrives in Miami. He hopes to build support for his friends who remain in Venezuela. However, as their needs pile up, he struggles to help them. Simón begins questioning his choice to stay and questions if he should return home. Along the way, he meets a young law student (Jana Nawartschi). Together they try to figure out the next steps.
Vicentini delivers a highly visceral experience as Simón struggles with his activism. He quickly establishes himself as an assertive storyteller. His characters approach moral quandaries but are forced to compromise their integrity. At other times, they are pushed into harm’s way and asked to take extreme measures. Vicentini examines these ideas thoughtfully and adds unique camera angles and sound choices to enhance the experience. These moments begin working on multiple experiential levels, all while increasing the tension with fast editing.
Keeping Simón light helps it dive further into the character as well. Vicentini adds unique visual flourishes to sell the internal character moments. A simple conversation with a pharmacist quickly amps up the tension. Even Zoom calls with friends in Venezuela add a visually unique approach that livens up a simple computer conversation. The inventive lenses and camera choices help tie us to moments that linger in the mind.
The performance from McGaffney quickly emerges as one of the most nuanced of 2023. He gets plenty of moments to charm our pants off, but when shouldering the emotional burden of Simón, he transcends the screenplay. The non-verbal moments, combined with his sorrowful eyes, capture lightning in a bottle. He carries the scars of his life in Venezuela, but it’s the weight of his choices that cause him to break in two. With Vicentini slowly revealing aspects of the story, how we interpret his body language changes over time. Yet when we get all the puzzle pieces, we understand the terrific performance at its center.
The rest of the cast provides memorable moments, but a performance from Franklin Vírgüez nearly steals the movie. His intensity chills to the bone, and Vicentini frames him like a true monster. The combination of lighting and performance makes for one of the most chilling sequences of the year. Another outstanding performance comes from Luis Silva, who must juggle his own journey of self-hatred and regret. It makes for an excellent foil to McGaffney, while showing a very different side of the struggle.
One of the only flaws of Simón stems from a few storytelling choices. The way Simón handles a side character does not always work. Because the execution lacks in this regard, it gives away an important plot point too early. It also opens the story to some odd logistical questions. Some cleanup on this aspect of the story would have taken this to borderline masterpiece status.
Simón features some contrived moments, but on the whole, it’s a powerful story. Full of incredible performances, Simón stands out as one of the festival’s best films. The emotional pathos can be felt in every frame, and the intensity will not be easily forgotten. With a story as important as this one, Simón needed to show the true horrors of the dissident experience. Along the way, Vicentini proves himself one of the best young filmmakers on the rise.