Crash Course: Contemporary Chilean Cinema

In an attempt to better diversify the content on this blog I’m introducing a new series of pieces I plan to write called “Crash Course.”  This is a rather casual series that will feature sporadically and will cover a wide range of topics.  With each Crash Course article I’ll look at something that’s been a blind spot in my movie watching and examine a handful of movies related to said blindspot.  Some of these articles will look at the works of a certain filmmaker, some will look at movies from a common franchise, and some will simply be looking at some films that all have a common theme. 

Great movies can emerge from any place at any time, but let’s be honest, pretty much the only countries that have really consistently been home to world’s best cinema throughout the history of the medium have been the United States, France, maybe Italy, possibly the United Kingdom and perhaps Sweden if you’re being generous. Elsewhere, truly relevant cinema tends to emerge in bursts and waves. Japan was a dominant force in the 50s and 60s but fell into a rut after that, Germany was a titan during the silent era but fell after the Second World War and perhaps re-emerged in the 70s, Hong Kong was a hotspot in the 90s, and various other countries had what could be termed “new waves” at one point or other during their history. Today the countries that  cinema watchers are eyeing the most closely are probably South Korea and Romania, but in the last couple of years I feel like I’ve been seeing another contender rise in the form of Chile. There hasn’t necessarily been a world conquering magnum opus like 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days out of the country yet and they haven’t had a major popular hit like Oldboy either, but for whatever reason they seem to be making things happen on the festival circuit in a way that their South American peers haven’t been and I wanted to take a look at what was going on down there.

Tony Manero (2008)

Chile’s biggest international hit to date is most likely the 2012/2013 film No, which became the nation’s first film to get an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language film. I reviewed that film when it first came out stateside and my estimation of it mostly rose in the ensuing months and weeks. It eventually made my top ten list last year and made me want to further investigate the works of its director Pablo Larraín, who is important both as one of the country’s most successful directors and as the producer on two of the other three films I plan to look at. Larraín was born in 1976, the son of two influential politicians within the conservative Pinochet-allied Independent Democrat Union party. Though he has largely rejected his family’s politics, it seems like his upbringing has made Larraín more keenly interested in his country’s history under Pinochet than his colleagues seem to be as all three of his major films have been set during that turbulent regime. In the case of this film, that connection may be more of a quirk of timing, but Larraín does not ignore the political backdrop of the film’s time.

Set in the late 70s, this film looks at a rather frightening man named Raúl Peralta (Alfredo Castro), who has developed a rather dangerous obsession with the character of Tony Manero from the 1977 film Saturday Night Fever. While it is that John Travolta film that is name-checked throughout the movie, the story much more closely resembles another late 70s American film: Taxi Driver. Both films deal with dangerous loners who are prone to explode into violent rages, but the key difference is that Travis Bickle (while certainly not a paragon of mental health at the films beginning) only slowly built his mania over the course of Scorsese’s movie, Raúl Peralta is already so far gone at the beginning of Tony Manero that you really never get too clear of an idea what initially sent him down this path. As such, this was a bit of a disappointment as a psychological portrait and I’m also surprised that the film never really seemed interested in linking Peralta’s erratic behavior with the misogynistic attitude or the Manero character.

In fact I don’t really think Saturday Night Fever itself holds that much relevance to the story beyond the fact that it just happened to be the film this character latched onto, it probably could have just as easily have been Star Wars or some other bit of popular culture from the era. I suspect that Larraín may have in fact been trying to make some larger point about American culture being used as an opiate to distract the masses during a time of political unrest, but it that’s the point then it’s a subtle one and one that seems largely unrelated to his main character’s psychopathic urges. I also wasn’t too thrilled with the film’s hand-held cinematography that mostly looked cheap rather than stylish. I still definitely have faith in Pablo Larraín as a filmmaker and look forward to seeing his second film (2010’s Post Mortum) but this film didn’t work nearly as well for me as No.

**1/2 out of Four

The Maid (2009)

While Tony Manero has come to gather something of a following in light of the director’s further success, it didn’t really have all that much success on the international film market. What I remember really being the first Chilean film to really get noticed abroad was the 2009 Sebastián Silva film The Maid, which won Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and managed to get a modest though noticeable arthouse release in the United States. The film deals with class issues in Santiago by examining the life of a maid named Raquel who has been living with and working for a wealthy Santiago family for over two decades but has come to be very unhappy. In fact she’s been displaying some rather peculiar behavior and has been having dizzy spells, and this has led the family to seek out an additional maid to assist her, a move that Raquel resents passionately.

This is not the easiest film to talk about without spoiling, in part because much of its charm comes from the way that it subverts viewer expectations. Early on you’re pretty clearly led to believe that this maid is more than a little bit unhinged and throughout the film you’re expecting this all to build toward some kind of violent finale. The twist, however, is that there is no twist. Raquel is certainly unhinged but she isn’t a psychopath and when her problems are finally (mostly) resolved peacefully through some simple friendship and empathy on the part of one of the maids hired to assist her, you sort of start to feel foolish for having thought the worst of her earlier.

So, rather than becoming a yuppie-horror film in the vein of something like The Hand That Rocks the Cradle this actually proves to be an examination of class structures and dehumanization. Between Raquel and the various assistant maids we start to see representatives of the many types of people who could potentially become domestic servants: people who take an unhealthy pride in their work, people who are overly cynical and detached about their role, young immigrants just trying to start fresh, and finally the rare person who does manage to keep perspective and do work like this in a healthy way.

That said, The Maid is not a pretty film; it was made on what appear to have been consumer grade digital cameras from back when digital photography still looked kind of terrible. I also would say that Silva probably could have still added a little more visual flair in spite of his clear budgetary limitations and I’d say that some of the supporting performances are better than others. Still, this is a very interesting and successful movie in spite of its limitations, mainly because it gives a voice to those who generally aren’t given much of a voice and doesn’t turn them into simplistic martyrs. Since making the film Sebastián Silva, who is also a musician and at one point tried making it in Hollywood, seems to have continued to have a strong career and recently completed a pair of films with Michael Cera called Magic Magic and Crystal Fairy which were both well received at Sundance.

*** out of Four

Young & Wild (2012)

Cinema has had a lot of trouble telling stories about women, and this has made for a lot of blogging and think piece writing over the last couple of years, which is why I’m a little surprised that this film from just a couple of years ago didn’t get more attention. Not only is this a movie about a female, but it’s a serious examination of a teenage girl and boldly tackles said girl’s views on sexuality. Not only that, it also tackles her bisexuality and the way that her evangelical Christian upbringing and her online life plays into both of these themes. If that’s not a potent brew of contemporary subject-matter I don’t know what is. And yet, the film didn’t really ever get U.S. distribution despite winning a fairly prominent award at Sundance (which, oddly enough given its very domestic focus, seems to be the festival leading the charge in Chilean cinema’s recent upswing in international attention).

The film follows a teenage girl who was raised by a pair of evangelical fundamentalists (who are minorities in this predominantly Catholic country). As the movie opens this girl is already pretty actively rebelling against her parents and has secretly started a web-blog under the name Young&Wild where she talks about her religious doubts and sexual exploits with other young people who feel the same way. It’s never entirely clear how many of her sexual feelings are genuine desires, how many are done out of sheer rebellion, or whether that’s a valid distinction to make in the first place. To be clear, this is not a movie for the prudish, we definitely see this girl “getting it on” a few time and there are at least two erect penis shots that would have most likely earned the film an NC-17 rating if it had been submitted to the MPAA. However, none of the material seems gratuitous and is clearly central to the story at hand, so it never seems as uncomfortable as it might have given the age of the characters.

This film is probably the most technically accomplished of the three Chilean films I’ve looked at for this series… in fact it might be a little too technically accomplished for its own good. Director Marialy Rivas isn’t a complete rookie to filmmaking but I think this is her first feature length narrative film and it kind of shows. The movie has a few too many gimmicks running through it for its own good and it sometimes feels like Rivas is trying to draw with every one of the crayons in the box. Still, this is a movie that tackles some very difficult subject matter that doesn’t get tackled that often and does it in a fairly light, accessible, and mostly fun way that I mostly enjoyed watching. Hopefully Rivas next movie will get a wider audience because I do think she’s primed to make something particularly special after this.

***1/2 out of Four

Gloria (2013)

Of the four Chilean movies I’m examining here this is the most recent and also the one that saw the most financial success at the U.S. box office. That is of course not saying much as two of the other three barely got any distribution at all, and the one that did (The Maid) got into all of 19 theaters and grossed a little over $500,000. Gloria, by contrast seems like a blockbuster for having gotten onto 110 screens and making a little over two million dollars (which is only about $100,000 less than No made). The film also fared quite well with critics and was Chile’s Oscar submission in the foreign language film category (where it failed to earn a nomination against heavy competition from films like The Great Beauty).

So what helped the film rise above the competition? Well as far as box office is concerned, that probably has a lot to do with the fact that the bulk of the arthouse crowd is composed of people that you’d call “of advanced years.” In fact, if this were in English, had a little less sex, some slightly more attractive stars, and maybe one or two fewer jagged edges and this would probably fit pretty easily into the Nancy Meyers mold of autumn-autumn romance films. The movie follows a middle aged divorced woman named Gloria (Paulina García) and the relationship that emerges between her and a divorced man named Rodolfo (Sergio Hernández) that she met at a club. The relationship seems to be going well, except that Rodolfo is hesitant to introduce Gloria to his grown children even though she is more than willing to introduce him to her grown children.

The idea of taking an otherwise vanilla love story and somehow elevating it by making it more “real” and casting it with people who don’t have movie star looks is not really all that much of a new idea.  The film Marty did that way back in 1955 and won an Academy Award for its trouble.  It did not, however, lead to some new wave of movies that featured normal looking lower-middleclass people so it still seems like something of a bold move to do the same thing in 2013.  Just the same I kind of wanted more out of Gloria than what I got.  This is just a very basic story that’s told in a way that’s largely above average.  Paulina Garcia gives a pretty good performance as the title character but I wasn’t blown away by her work necessarily and wasn’t really blown away by the movie in general.  I kept waiting for some sort of twist or complication that would really bring it to the next level, but that never really came.  In general it just seems like a rather minor work and I’m surprised it did so much better than some of its Chilean peers.

*** out of Four

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