Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Apr 12, 2006 12:44 pm 
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Urban ennui and curiosity delineated in a brilliant new film

Thirty-two-year-old Chilean filmmaker Alicia Scherson has made an extraordinarily accomplished and delightful first feature. Let's not try to start out by declaring what it's "about": it's too rich and delicate for that to be anything but a travesty. Let's just mention that Play won the Best New Narrative Filmmaker award at the Tribeca festival a year ago but still has no US distribution -- and hence, its appearance at the upcoming 49th San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF). Fresh, rich in invention, sure in its unique tone, Play is a significant addition to world cinema and marks Alicia Scherson out as one of Latin America's exciting new filmmakers. It deserves to be widely seen. Like all great filmmakers, Scherson knows well how important time is -- how a movie is all about time -- and can play the game of time. In Play we're always in the present, always absorbed; the game is always in play.

If Play seems to be about "nothing," look again. Antonioni's L'Avventura and Fellini's La dolce vita were about "nothing" too. Scherson has modulated Antonioni's boredom into bemused loneliness and Fellini's wealthy idleness into a twenty-first century urban anomie of easy meetings and easy separations. But again, the generalizations feel wrong and should be held till much later. Clearly Scherson sees life with a precision and wit even the greatest directors might envy.

In a way the real protagonist of Play is the city of Santiago, Chile. Scherson conceived her film, in which several people wander around the city, when on a Fulbright in Chicago, thinking about Santiago. Her male protagonist, Tristán (Andres Ulloa), wakes up in the arms of his wife Irene (Aline Kupperhein) feeling terribly sad. He goes to work -- he's an architect on a construction site but a strike is called and later he gets knocked down by a drunk, and loses consciousness after running into a post. Awakening in the street the next day with a scar on his head, he goes into what the French call a fugue -- wandering around the city, getting drunk, no longer quite caring who he is -- and seeming to lose his identity, since he isn't working, he isn't with his wife or at home, and around a dive bar he has begun to frequent people keep mistaking him for somebody named "Walter." He spends the night in his old room at the house of his blind, charming mother, (the very accomplished Coca Guazzini) who now has a hunky magician living with her (Jorge Allis).

Meanwhile Cristina (Viviana Herrera), a young Indian woman from the southern hinterland whose "story" the movie follows from the start in parallel with Tristán's, is paid to care for Milos (Francisco Copello) an old, ill Hungarian man. Out for a walk, she comes across the abandoned briefcase of Tristán in a dumpster and at once lays out its contents and begins smoking his cigarettes and lighting them with his lighter and listening to his MP3 with his big headphones. Cristiana is sweet but a loner, walking a lot, playing the "flippy" Japanese video games in the center of town. An observer, she wants to return the briefcase, but she can't resist taking time to analyze its contents first and winds up stalking Tristán and secretly, invisibly, partially inhabiting his now disoriented life. In the meantime she cares for her sick man, reading to him from the National Geographic about an Amazonian tribe wiped out by invading white people. She goes on listening to music on Tristan's headphones and starts a running conversation with a sexy gardener, Manuel (J. Pablo Quezada), near Milos' building. (All Scherson's men are attractive, her women too.) A mercurial, honest fellow, as full of passion and life as Tristán is full of passionate ennui, the gardener likes Cristina, but declares her to be strange. At one point they start kissing, and then she immediately says goodbye and walks away.

Scherson mocks her own device of having Cristina follow Tristán and Irene at one point by having the three following each other, Indian file. She majored in biology in college, and she's above all a careful observer, neither making fun nor drawing heavy conclusions. Significant changes happen for both Tristán and Cristina before the movie ends. There are no conventional "resolutions." And yet things feel wonderfully resolved. It's a mark of Scherson's brilliance in design that even in the very last few minutes we're still curious to learn -- and learning -- important things about both the main characters -- yet can't really say for sure where they're going to go from here. The great thing is that through all the playful randomness of the narrative, we never lose our focus on the two contrasting moods of Tristán's lost melancholy and Cristina's busy but disoriented contentment with urban life.

(Shown at the San Francisco International Film Festival April 23, 26, and 28 and May 3, 2006.)

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