By Joseph Fahim
Latin American cinema came of age at the turn of the new century. Emerging filmmakers from Mexico, Brazil, Argentina and Peru took the art-house film world by storm over the past 11 years with watershed works such as “City of God,” “Y Tu Mamá También,” “Amores Perros,” “The Headless Woman,” “The Secret in Their Eyes” and “The Milk of Sorrow,” to name a few.
Less well-known, if equally significant, is Chilean cinema which, judging by the diverse range of recent impressive offerings, has shown great potential for turning into a major new force in international cinema.
For the past four decades, international audiences have identified Chilean cinema with two filmmakers: cult legend Alejandro Jodorowsky, director of the highly provocative surreal epics “El Topo” (1970), “The Holy Mountain” (1973) and “Santa Sangre” (1989), and Patricio Guzmán, veteran documentarian of the expansive three-part record of the Chilean revolution “Battle of Chile” (1977).
The highly prolific Raúl Ruiz has been mostly celebrated for his French co-productions such as “Le temps retrouvé,” “Généalogies d’un crime” and last year’s sublime mini-series “Mysteries of Lisbon.”
The growing interest in Chilean film has been incited in recent years by the works of four young filmmakers: Golden Globe nominee Sebastián Silva (“The Maid’), Pablo Larraín (“Toney Manero,” “Post Mortem”), Sebastián Lelio (“La sagrada familia”) and, least obvious of the lot, Matías Bize.
Since his breakthrough in 2005 with the art-house blockbuster “En la cama” (In Bed), Bize has managed to carve a distinguished name for himself, building a small oeuvre different in shape and context from the politically-driven films of his compatriots.
Bize’s films are personal romantic dramas that are not Chile-specific. Often compared to Richard Linklater (“Before Sunset”), his three films — “In Bed,” “Lo bueno de llorar” (About Crying) and “La vida de los peces” (The Life of Fish) — are all set in one evening and center primarily on a romantic couple at different intervals in their relationship.
The 31-year-old Bize was fresh-off the commercial and critical success of “The Life of Fish” — which represented Chile in this year’s best foreign language film Oscar — when I met him last year to discuss his latest film, his career and the blossoming Chilean cinema.
In “In Bed” — which spawned a theater adaptation and a remake in the shape of last year’s “Room in Rome” by the “Sex and Lucia” Spanish director Julio Medem — a one night stand turns into a doomed romance; in “About Crying,” a couple roam the streets in their last night together as they ready themselves to go their separate ways.
“The Life of Fish” — which opens in the US and different parts of the globe next month — expands Bize’s universe. The center of the film is also a story of couple, a 30-something expat returning to his Chilean hometown to meet the girlfriend he left behind 10 years ago, but the themes this time are broader, the pains are more piercing, the stakes are higher.
Chilean heartthrob Santiago Cabrera is Andrés, a single travel journalist now based in Berlin. Contrary to his friends’ presumptions, his life is far from exciting, or meaningful. He appears weathered, constantly forcing a faint smile that fails to hide his deep-seated loneliness.
The setting is a birthday party taking place at the household of his late best friend who was killed in a car accident. The stable, consistent lives his friends lead are no more reassuring than his; all trapped in a domestic existence with a seemingly dead end. They dreams they once shared were never materialized and, as they admit early on, will never be.
Andrés’ childhood friends may have managed to accept their reality, but he can’t, a realization validated by his encounter with his former long-time girlfriend Beatriz, played by luminous soap opera star Blanca Lewin.
Now unhappily married with a twin, Bea has lost touch with Andrés when he didn’t turn up for the fateful appointment that determined their future together 10 years ago. The fragmented conversations they have, and the ultimate confrontation they try to evade throughout the course of the film, are soaked in nostalgia, longing and lament. They both ultimately acknowledge that the past cannot be undone.
Shot mostly in beautifully-lensed close-ups, “The Life of Fish” is Bize’s most mature and poignant film to date, placing his sad romances in a bigger, more ambitious frame. Essentially, this is a film about early middle-age disappointments, about the reckless choices of youth and the heavy consequences that comes with adulthood, about lost loves, fleeting happiness, agonizing departures and lingering regret.
“The Life of Fish” sprang from a thought of what would happen if a broken-up couple gets a second chance. “‘In Bed’ was a couple forging a brief relationship in one night, in ‘About Crying,’ a couple splits up in one night. ‘The Life of Fish’ is about a couple, with a longer history, who meet 10 years after splitting. That was a new angle I wanted to explore” Bize said.
“I didn’t initially set up to make a trilogy when I made those three films. It just came naturally to me. Now I do realize though they do make a trilogy of sorts.”
The confined settings and time-frames is what distinguish his films the most. “I’m interested in specific moments,” Bize says. “In ‘In Bed’ for example, I could’ve started with the two meeting up at the party and followed them the day after. But for me, the most important part of this story is those three or four hours in the motel. I wanted to purge all the elements that were not as important, I wanted to be focused to the maximum. Same thing with ‘Life of Fish.’ I could’ve started it when Andrés’ first arrives to Chile, but I chose to focus on those few hours he spends at the party.
“I didn’t intend to create sad romances, but these are the stories I can relate to. They are, in some way, personal statements. They are not autobiographical stories, but there are plenty of elements of me in them.”
The worldview presented in Bize’s films is somewhat downhearted; love, in his world, is the most elusive of things: impermanent, impossible to sustain. In all three movies, the couple at the heart of the stories must always separate. “Well, the movies have indeed finished but the stories haven’t,” he said. “They are sad, but that’s the way real life is.”
Being one of the poster boys of new Chilean cinema, I asked him if what we’re witnessing now is a Chilean new wave. “Yes. A few years ago, around the time Lelio’s ‘La sagrada familia’ was released, critics coined that term. I think it’s too early though to brand our efforts as a new wave. We need to have more movies produced to have that. I’m very optimistic about Chilean cinema. We now have many film schools; we have many young people making movies.
“Finance remains difficult, as in most countries. We rely on three means: foreign co-productions (mainly though French/German broadcast channel Arte), the government fund and the National Chilean TV. I think we’re taking major steps forward when it comes to promoting and marketing our movies both inside and outside Chile.”
As in most emerging film industries, American cinema has a near-monopoly over the local market. “It’s impossible to compete with American film,” Bize says. “And the problem is we don’t have sufficient screens. When ‘Avatar’ was released, for instance, half of the cinemas were showing it while the others were showing ‘Sex and the City.’ Chilean films don’t stay for long in theaters because of the demand for Hollywood movies.
“We were very lucky with ‘The Life of Fish.’ It played in cinemas for more than five months, which is very rare for Chilean movies.”
When I asked him about his current influences, Bize gave me a baffling response. “I really like Romanian films,” he said. “I love, love [Cristian Mungiu’s Palm d’Or winner] ‘4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.’ It’s one of my favorite movies. I realize their films are much different than mine. They’re full of dry humor and they’re emotionally distant whereas my movies are emotionally charged. But I love movies about relationships; small intimate movies.”
“The Life of Life” was a reunion for Bize and the “In Bed” star Lewin. In fact, the character of Bea was written with Lewin in mind. “She’s brilliant, very delicate and she’s a very hard worker,” Bize commented. “And she knows how to work in cinema.”
“The best way to direct actors is provide them with a comfortable space where they can be free to try different things. Santiago was brilliant as well. His character was very difficult to play because most of emotions are directed inwardly. But it came naturally to him, partially because he’s also been outside Chile for so long and he identified a lot with the character.”
I asked him if he intends to continue abiding by the narrative structure of his past three films for future project. “It’s crazy,” he laughed, “but every time I intend to veer off this track, I always find myself returning back to it. I can’t help it I guess. This story format is just very simple, very powerful. The format aside, I do believe that all three films are different, in terms of the dynamic of the relationships or the setting. I want to do something completely different next time, but who knows. What I know as that it will be as personal as my previous films.”