“The Proposal” Succeeds Thanks to a Focus on the Questions

The Proposal

Jill Magid’s documentary delves into messy conversations about the link between art and legacy, becoming a short but compelling work of its own.


Needless to say, we live in spoiler-phobic times — more than ever, people are worried that the conclusions of their favorite shows and movies will be ruined by a stray summary or tweet. But I wonder: do these same anxieties apply to documentaries? It’s quite possible that sometime over the last few years, you may have come across a stray news story about artist/filmmaker Jill Magid’s auspicious attempt to free the archives of Mexican architect Luis Barragán from the grasp of a Swiss company.

And yet, if you can avoid Googling the details, The Proposal – Magid’s 83-minute doc, not to be confused with the identically-titled 2009 romantic comedy starring Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds – will be even more satisfying. The director has her finger on the pulse of a heap of engaging questions about capitalism’s relationship to art and legacy, crafting a worthwhile work of her own along the way.

For the film itself is yet another attempt by Magid to liberate that which Barragán left behind. Some context: Barragán is a prolific modernist architect, whose striking designs still stand tall in Mexico City today. Barragán passed away in 1988, and a few years later, the rights to his extensive archive were acquired by the Vitra Corporation, a Swiss company that makes high-end furniture.

The purchase was made by Vitra executive Rolf Fehlbaum and his then-fiancé, Frederica Zanco, with the pair moving everything five thousand miles east. The latter manages the collection, quickly copywriting everything she could and cutting off archive access to the public. In the decades since, Zanco has become the ultimate gatekeeper, with Barragán’s blueprints, letters, and drawings entirely in her hands – and her hands alone.

The director has her finger on the pulse of a heap of engaging questions about capitalism’s relationship to art and legacy, crafting a worthwhile work of her own along the way.

Thus, Magid frames herself as Barragán’s biggest fan, a woman on a mission to democratize Barragán’s legacy. She and Zanco share this deep appreciation for the artist’s work, which is explored when the film restages their lengthy email communications through voiceover. It’s just one of the filmmaking problems The Proposal encounters: since so much of this material exists in the abstract, how does one visualize it?

Magid leans on many slow, wide shots, a choice that generally captures the bittersweet mood the imperfect situation. Still, there’s a lot she can’t show, as so much of Barragán’s work cannot be legally captured or reproduced – the whole problem Magid is trying to solve. “The archive,” the thing Magid is fighting to free, only exists in the collective imaginations of everyone but Zanco. Her strategy to appeal to Frederica is borderline preposterous and certainly memorable.

Once all the pieces of her plan fall into place, the film has definitely demonstrated that it was worth your time. Still, as a documentary of a specific set of events, Magid still has to stretch to fill out the runtime. But by the time the credits roll, The Proposal’s ends have justified the means – just try to avoid learning too much about either before going in.

The Proposal opens June 14th for a week-long run at the Gene Siskel Film Center. Get tickets here.

The Proposal Trailer:

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Jonah Koslofsky

Jonah Koslofsky is a critic and filmmaker living in Chicago. He regularly writes about film, television, and pop culture, with a special interest in David Lynch, the Marvel movies, and using too many em-dashes. On an average day, you might find him in a coffee shop or a comic book store. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook – he's just happy to be here!

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