“About what? The kidnapping or the body parts?”
Writer, director, and co-creator of the WIGS network Rodrigo García pretty much summed up his short film entry Serena with the following behind the scenes quote: “The best love stories are those with the greatest obstacles.” An intriguing sentiment as far as admitting the struggle necessary to find, keep, and enhance one’s love with another, the word obstacle is an understatement in the context of the relationship he’s created. Dealing with the interactions of a pastor and one of his troubled parishioners, the question of sinful thought is taken to the extreme as fidelity to God is challenged by a heartfelt confession.
Containing impressively performances by Jennifer Garner and Alfred Molina as Serena and the priest respectively, the film turns from lightheartedly comical to dramatically emotive at the drop of a hat when the titular woman finally finds the courage to speak truth. A bit of a thorn in Molina’s side—as evidenced by his exasperation when hearing her voice mere hours after listening that morning—Serena cannot help herself from telling tall tales of what he coins “childish pranks” in order to feign sinfulness and make her presence relevant. She’d go on without end if he’d let her just to hear his voice in return. But once his impatience can no longer be shielded under the guise of compassion, Serena realizes the time to admit her secret is now.
Gorgeously composed within a Catholic confessional, we see the two barred from each other physically and metaphorically by the grated window between. Familiar enough with one another so that he looks directly at her when chiding for the wasted time, their bickering is like a game an old married couple might play. Comical in both the stories—Serena posing as a nun around town as well as sharing details of a kinky sex life—and the reactions by Molina to the outlandish lies, the first half plays as though just one more day of harmless jest. Only when he advises her trivial actions should be confided to a friend or therapist does the woman discover she has outgrown her welcome.
Maybe she feels ashamed or guilty or restlessly unable to go on without releasing her feelings despite their necessary and inevitable rejection, but Serena does eventually lay her soul bare in an emotional monologue surprising even this usual Garner detractor. Her dialogue is expertly timed and spoken with a mix of genuine fear and relief, needing to finish the confession before losing the little confidence earned minutes earlier. And as her words express the powerful storm swirling within, Molina’s silently nuanced reactions to the revelation are what project the true import of their meaning. We may cut through the pronouns before he does, but his inability to control his expression when the moment occurs epitomizes the honesty possessed by this gem of a film.
Excelling in large part due to its actors, one shouldn’t deny García’s expert handling of them and his material. Explaining how he always had Garner in mind for the lead, the fact she suggested Molina to star opposite her is an intriguing morsel of information. Definitely a spot-on casting choice with his cultured demeanor and Spanish background, we can conjure images of his hearty laugh from other films when it’s described here without example. Our familiarity with these actors helps fill in García’s intentional blanks to see into their minds as only knowing eyes star back in silence. So much is said with so little as forbidden love is set free. What happens next is inconsequential; their stunning final expressions saying more than any continuation ever could.