SDLFF Dispatch #3 – “Bonsái” & “La espera”
“They can’t all be good,” is a mantra that any regular attendee of film festivals must adopt as they shuffle from show to show, because there are inevitably low points at even the most prestigious of fests. Having seen three strong films in a row at SDLFF, however, I started to second guess that general rule – perhaps I could make it through a dozen-plus movies without disliking any of them. Crazier things have happened. But that thought didn’t last long, as the next two selections I saw were less than impressive.
How ironic that the most pedigreed film at this year’s SDLFF—Cristián Jiménez’s Bonsái, which has played everywhere from Cannes to Telluride to AFI—would turn out to be the first one that left me unenthused.
Based on the popular novella by Chilean author Alejandro Zambra, Bonsái chronicles the life of Julio (Diego Noguera) in eight year intervals, from college to middle age. In the first scene, we are informed that Blanca, who we soon learn is Julio’s girlfriend during the first eight-year passage, will die at the end of the film, while Julio will remain alive and lonely. Rather than create an impending feeling of doom or tragedy, this straightforward notice encourages the viewer to live in the moment with Julio – to experience life as it comes at him.
The problem with this approach, however, is that Julio is not an involving or complex enough character to drive the movie. Played like a Wes Anderson character without any of the spark or ingenuity by Diego Noguera, his life feels like one monotonous series of going through the motions. As writer/director, Jiménez toys with clever themes in the central plot—after failing to land a job transcribing a new novel by the popular author Gazmuri (Hugo Medina), Julio begins to work on a book of his own that is inextricably tied to his life experiences, particularly with Blanca—but Julio is so lifeless that the viewer doesn’t have any reason to digest them. In other words, the film has many ideas about authorship, memory, self-reflection, and artistic catharsis, but this protagonist is not a proper vehicle for them – and they can’t really function all by themselves, existentially. Clearly, the downbeat, internalized approach to Julio was as much Jiménez’s idea as it was Noguera’s, but no matter who is responsible, it doesn’t work.
Bonsái is full of quirks which might seem cloying in a bubblier movie—for instance, when Blanca asks him what the pale spot on his chest is, Julio responds “Proust,” because he was sunburned while sleeping on the beach with the author’s volume on top of him—but here they are welcome, because they enliven the otherwise lethargic proceedings. That said, the titular metaphor, which likens writing and, in turn, life to bonsai tree maintenance, is so ornate and hokey that it cannot be excused. 2 Buckets out of 4. Screens again Sunday, March 18 at 8:30 p.m.
Suffering from the complete opposite problem is Francisca Fuenzalida’s La espera (The Wait), also from Chile. This is a tense bottle episode of a film, in which 17-year-old Natalia (María de Los Ángeles García) takes abortion pills she purchased on the black market, then waits for them to kick in, boyfriend Rodrigo (Diego Ruiz) by her side. The film is so authentically performed by the leads, it is often unbearable – early scenes in which the teens convince themselves that an abortion is what’s best for them are nearly as tense and heartbreaking as the later ones, which graphically find Natalia bleeding and in pain (She takes the pills father into pregnancy than one is supposed to). Furthermore, even though director Fuenzalida shoots on cheap-looking, unstable digital video, the amateurish cinematography feels true to the private nature of the characters’ plight.
That all may sound like high praise, and it is. The only film this year that has made me wince as much as this one was Justin Kurzel’s The Snowtown Murders – it’s gutturally affecting. But, as was the case with that film, La espera proves that just because a filmmaker can tackle a tough subject realistically and evoke a strong reaction in the viewer, doesn’t mean that they should. For the viewer to be put through hell, there needs to be a reason – an enlightening message or idea that will make the experience worth enduring. La espera has very little to say other than: “This is underground abortion and it’s ugly.” Certainly, this is a topical issue in Chile, where there are no legal abortions of any kind allowed. But Fuenzalida doesn’t lend anything to the debate – viewers are more likely to come to applicable realizations about the controversial issue by watching Mike Leigh’s 1950s-set Vera Drake than they are this film. As it stands, the only context in which La espera could be effective is as a tool to preach abstinence in Sex Ed. 1 ½ Buckets out of 4. Screens again Saturday, March 17 at 10:30 p.m.