“A Year without Love,” based on the published diaries of Pablo Pérez, is an astonishing and riveting drama about an HIV-positive young man involved in the S/M scene in Buenos Aires. What makes co-writer/director Anahí Berneri’s film so compelling—and so moving—is the absolute humanity of the main character. He is the gay everyman—someone looking for love and acceptance, but also insecure and stubborn.
Pablo (Juan Minujín) is a handsome young poet who is trying to write. He chronicles his life with AIDS, “this monstrous porno disease” he calls it, in a diary he keeps on his computer. He struggles in the film’s opening scenes with writing newspaper ads—one for teaching French to earn money, the other an invitation for sex, if not love. Pablo admits that he is not sure “who I am,” or “what I am looking for,” but it is clear that he deeply desires physical contact and emotional connection.
In fact, most of the sex Pablo has is with strangers on the floors in a nearby porno theater. Sex for Pablo is not just a physical release, but also an escape from reality—his issues with not having any money, bickering with his aunt, whom he lives with, treating his disease, and not having anyone to love.
Director Anahí Berneri portrays these aspects of Pablo’s life beautifully, focusing on his daily routine with engaging intimacy. Watching Pablo cough and sweat in bed before going to the hospital for treatment, or wait for a phone call from a potential fuck buddy are forceful moments, because viewers share his sense of restlessness and anxiety. His conversations about money with his father, or his discussions with his doctor about AZT—the year is 1996—also heighten the sense of urgency and despair regarding Pablo’s situation.
Despite his difficulties, however, Pablo does live in hope—of finding love and publishing his poetry and writing. One night he has a wordless exchange with a sexy young man he later learns is named Martín (Javier Van de Couter). Pablo becomes enamored with him, and as a participant in the B&D, S/M scene, Pablo is thrilled to find out that Martín is a master, looking for a slave. Pablo is all too willing to give himself over to the object of his lust.
In what is one of the film’s best scenes, Pablo calls Martín to arrange a meeting. Their naughty chat—shot in a seductive split screen—has Pablo practically licking Martín’s foot through the phone line. A few moments later, the two men meet in Pablo’s apartment for an incredibly hot and sexy tryst.
The sexual activity in “A Year without Love” includes a rather graphic montage in which Pablo witnesses episodes of flogging and domination. These scenes do not shy away from depicting the reality of the practices, and issues of safety are addressed. Some viewers may be taken aback by a scene, shot in close-up, in which a nearly naked and handcuffed Pablo has his ass and nipples teased by a knife; others will be turned on.
“A Year without Love” is incredibly erotic, in part because Minujín is so fearless in his role. The appealing actor gives a tremendous performance as Pablo and he is adorable when he smiles at the thought of Martín, and empathetic when he undergoes tests for his disease. Minujín tackles this tough role with incredible grace. He also rises to the challenge of performing the B&D, S/M sequences.
Credit is also due to Berneri, who films the kinky scenes as artfully as she does an AIDS cocktail pill dissolving in a glass of water. Even when Berneri is depicting the seamier sides of Argentine gay life, this is an extraordinarily beautiful film, thanks to Lucio Bonelli’s exquisite cinematography.
“A Year without Love” may be leisurely in reaching its pivotal dramatic moments—most of which occur in the final reel—but the film is so mesmerizing that it yields an almost unexpected power and poignancy that resonate after the credits roll.