New Chilean cinema: The children of the Jackal? By Jorge Morales

in 27th Havana International Festival of the New Latinamerican Cinema

by Jorge Morales

Ever since the September issue of Cahiers du cinéma published a text on young Chilean filmmakers – mainly Matías Bize (In Bed / En la cama), Alicia Scherson (Play) and Sebastián Campos (The Sacred Family / La sagrada familia), all of them screened in Havana – some people in the Chilean movie sector started talking about a movement. It wasn’t just a generational matter (they’re all around 30), but because the films’ subjects dealt with personal concerns rather than with a political vision of the country, with the life of marginal or criminal groups, or the picaresque comedy that Chilean cinema was locked up in for years. However, the truth is that this pseudo-movement, which by the way picked up the same name as the most important group in our film history, in the 60s and 70s, Nuevo Cine Chileno (with Miguel Littin’s The Jackal of Nahueltoro as the most emblematic film), is more of a media operation than a real thing. Yes, it’s true that these filmmakers are different from the ones that came before – who were more concerned about making profitable more than authorial films -, and we can also acknowledge a certain thematic reorientation; but the ways of filmmaking, the results of this practice, the spirit and the emotional connection of the works with the films of the 70s (mentioned as the group’s inspiration) are totally different in each case.

The case of Matías Bize is the most paradoxical one. His debut with Saturday (Sábado) was a display of creative freedom. It was made in one sequence shot, and improvisation, spontaneity and the unpredictable risks were taken as the base and the decisive contribution to the mise-en-scène; as the traces of a style. With In Bed, Bize wanted to repeat the same effect in a new exercise. During an hour and a half, he only filmed two characters locked up in a room having sex and talking about their lives. But the result is totally different, risk-free; pure calculation and no spontaneity. It’s a thorough and extremely conventional screenplay that covers, as if following a checklist, all the topics one can think of for two sporadic lovers. Visually, Bize works with a framing that seeks to render the image more dynamic (looking for all sorts of angles), with no apparent reason other than “oxygenizing” the confinement, and without providing the shots with any narrative or emotional value. In a spirit closer to a short film, In Bed advances stumbling from a minimalist gaze to an orchestration full of common places. Nevertheless, the awards obtained in La Havana (Third Coral and best screenplay) are not entirely unmerited given the low level of the films in competition, and the fact that In Bed responds to a common vice among filmmakers that have achieved a previous success: making films for festivals.

Something of the style happens with Play, the winner of the Debuts segment. Alicia Scherson’s film is probably one of the best crafted of all recent Chilean productions. The cinematography (remarkably executed in a High Definition digital format), the sound and the shot composition are outstanding. The problem is that they support a naïf babbling, a sort of urban magic realism in which Scherson seems to be more concerned about making the most superfluous details seem exotic than of telling a story with a minimum support. The calculated idea of accentuating the color palette -with no further sense than embellishing the image-, the fact of acutely working the sound but without giving it an expressive value, give away the questionable wish to surprise, of shyly impressing instead of moving, of making rhymes but no poetry. Except for the excellent protagonist (Viviana Herrera), the rest of the cast can hardly deal with the lack of fluidity of the declamatory dialogues.

The only filmmaker and the only film whose naturalness responds to a more inventive attitude and mechanics is Sebastián Campos with The Sacred Family. Campos has proven to be an heir of the 70s’ New Chilean Cinema, less in aesthetic terms than for his position towards film. The freedom of his working method allowed an absolute freshness in the performances and the dialogues. Following Miguel de Cervantes’ call for an “unreflective attack and a methodic retreat”, Campos unreflectively attacked with a ten-page screenplay shot in three days, and then spent a year editing the material (the methodic retreat), as he mentioned in an interview with The result is an imperfect work that might fall short in its development (the ending is totally predictable), but at the same time it generates tensions and a highly efficient psychological suspense. If what it’s about is betting on renovation and change, then Campos is the one that best represents this perspective. He takes the risk for a more intuitive cinema, less calculated (like Bize), and he uses the camera as a weapon and not as a wand to make some corny visual magic (like Scherson). He even manages to be subversive with his film (like the cinema of the 70s), which deals with the hypocrisy of Chile’s catholic conservatism, and which should open in its country during the next Easter Week.